Oregon Farm Grows Organic Chestnuts for Roasting o’er an Open Fire
December 23, 2013 | Marianne Peters
This time of year, the airwaves fill with the soothing voice of Nat King Cole crooning about chestnuts.
Though this seasonal treat is not as common as it used to be when you could buy a handful from a sidewalk vendor or pick a bowlful from your own native tree, it is still possible to find fresh chestnuts to roast, boil, broil, or tuck into casseroles. Ben and Sandy Bole have owned Ladd Hill Orchards since 1988.
When they purchased it, the property was a neglected walnut orchard sixteen miles south of Portland, Oregon in the fertile Willamette Valley. For a short time, they considered growing hazelnuts or grapes—the land is well suited for both, according to Ben Bole. However, at the time the Boles purchased the property, hazelnut blight had affected many of the area’s crops, so they decided to grow chestnuts instead. Now they use sustainable methods to grow their crop, which they ship fresh to customers all over the U. S. and Canada throughout the Christmas season.
Chestnuts are native to the countries along the Mediterranean from Spain to Portugal. Many chestnuts imported to the United States come from Italy. China, Korea, and Japan also grow their own cultivars. Up until the early 20th Century, American chestnut trees grew by the millions until most succumbed to blight. The Boles grow a hybrid called “Colossal,” a cross between European and Japanese chestnut trees.
“It’s really the basis for a lot of the chestnut industry in the west,” said Ben Bole. American chestnuts are making a slow comeback. “There’s been a big effort to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut, but so far it’s had limited success,” says Bole.
The Boles did not start out growing chestnuts sustainably. It was only after their business had grown that they discovered it would be possible to use organic methods profitably. They have been certified organic for ten years. Two to three chestnuts develop inside a fearsome thorny husk about the size of a baseball. Picking by hand—even with leather gloves—is impossible.
“The thorns are really objectionable!” says Bole. “We have to machine-harvest the crop.” The nuts ripen unevenly, so throughout the months of October and November, his workers use a device like a giant vacuum cleaner to pick up the ripened husks from the ground, and then they take them to be processed and sorted from small to jumbo-sized for packaging and shipping.
The chestnuts are shipped by air to ensure their freshness and quality. Growing a sustainable crop is more labor-intensive than using conventional methods. “We have to use mechanical means to grow an organic crop,” Bole concedes.“We mow a lot. We don’t spray for weeds or use chemical insecticides or fertilizers.”
The cuttings from the mower works as an effective mulch, and as the nuts are harvested, Boles composts the leftover husks for additional mulch and fertilizer. The thorns disintegrate as they compost, making the material much easier to handle. Chestnuts are truly a seasonal crop. Because they are more like a fruit than a nut, Bole said, fresh chestnuts must be refrigerated and kept slightly moist. Their short shelf life is one reason to buy domestic chestnuts.
“Street vendors in New York or Boston are selling mostly imported chestnuts from Italy,” he said. “Many times they’ve been improperly handled and there’s a lot of spoilage. They really belong in the produce section, but stores will put them with other nuts, where they dry out.”
The Boles have begun to sell their chestnuts to smaller, specialty food markets that handle them with care. They sell much of their crop to individual customers who, Ben Bole says, will buy them in quantities from ten up to twenty-five pounds at a time. Chestnuts have a sweet, mild flavor. Naturally high in fiber, they lack the fat and cholesterol of other tree nuts—a guilt-free snack compared to other holiday “goodies.”
The Boles sell their fresh chestnuts by the pound, but they also sell packages of dried chestnuts, which keep longer and can be reconstituted for use in recipes. Chestnut flour—which is gluten-free—is also a popular product. Ben Bole recommends chestnut flour as a coating for pan-fried chicken. Their website has a list of recipes, including a chestnut apple casserole that has become a Bole family tradition.
Ladd Hill certified organic chestnuts and chestnut products are available for order from their website. However, if you want a taste of this seasonal delicacy, you will have to act fast. By the first of the year, Ben Bole said, they will be completely sold out until next year.