Stanislaus County farmer Joe Avila, who owns The Chestnut Farm in Modesto with his wife, Jenni, says his harvest is complete and he expects to sell out before the Thanksgiving holiday.
"The production of the chestnut crop this year was very nice," Avila said. "Volume-wise, it was a little smaller, but percentages on the size of the chestnuts was up from last year quite a bit, so we're happy with that. Chestnut quality looks great; they're peeling well and they're sweet."
Avila said he started growing chestnuts in the early 1980s, due to fond memories of eating them as a boy growing up in the Azores Islands of Portugal. He said he initially planted three dozen trees and today grows 5 acres of chestnuts.
He harvested 9 tons of chestnuts this season, including the European Colossal variety—a hybrid of Japanese and European varieties resistant to chestnut blight, which virtually destroyed the native American chestnut in the mid-1900s. The family also grows an accompanying pollinator, the Nevada chestnut. Avila said the two trees are planted together and depend on wind pollination to set the crop.
Harvest typically begins in mid-September and continues through mid-October. The Avilas—with help from their son Shane and daughter and son-in law Laci and Kenny Anderson—shake the trees and collect ripened chestnuts that have dropped to the orchard floor.
"When the chestnuts start dropping too much, then it's impossible to try to pick all of those by hand," Avila said. "I sweep them into a row and I have a machine that picks up the loose ones, picks up the ones in the burr (spiny husk), and de-burrs the ones in the burr. Chestnuts are a very labor-intensive crop; that is why the industry is so small. The last 15 years, we do it all mechanically, so we've spent some money."
Employees at the farm sort the chestnuts and run them through a sizer, which organizes the nuts into four sizes, then loads them into 25-pound bags. Following harvest, chestnuts are placed into cold storage and marketed through November, with prices ranging from $2.75 to $4.50 per pound, depending on nut size.
"Chestnuts are a real unique and specialty item, and there are not many planted in California and in the United States," Jenni Avila said. "When we first started growing them, we used to go to farmers markets and sell them, and pretty soon it was just more efficient to tell people to stop by our farm."
There are 919 farms producing chestnuts in the U.S. on more than 3,700 acres, according to crop data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California ranks third among the states with the most chestnut acreage, behind Michigan and Florida.
University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Emeritus Paul Vossen said there are a few small-scale chestnut growers in California, who mostly sell directly to customers.
"Americans typically only buy chestnuts around the holidays, from Thanksgiving to Christmas," Vossen said. "They buy them and roast them on an open fire—you know the song. That's the major part of the market."
One advantage for California farmers, he said, is that their chestnuts mature before Thanksgiving, providing an early market.
Known as "the chestnut man," Joe Avila sells chestnuts directly to farm visitors or ships them to customers around the country in 10-pound and 18-pound boxes. Each fall, he also attends several Portuguese festas, or festivals, where he either sells or donates chestnuts, a treat that reminds fellow Azoreans of home.
"We sell to many nationalities in California, and Jenni ships a lot of chestnuts around the U.S. Italians like to roast chestnuts, Portuguese boil them, Bosnians roast them and Asians boil them," Avila said.
For many of the farm's customers, Jenni Avila said, "chestnuts remind them of their upbringing and home country, or remind them of a trip they've taken in other parts of the world."
Joe Avila described chestnuts as sweet, with a mild flavor, and noted that unlike walnuts and other hard nuts, they are soft but still firm when cooked and have a grain-like texture.
Chestnuts are rich in nutrients such as vitamin C and fiber and, unlike other nuts, contain just a trace of fat, according to the Chestnut Growers of America.
Each fall, recipes celebrating chestnuts begin to appear, including traditional uses such as in turkey stuffing or roasted.
"Eating them like a snack is the go-to way," Jenni Avila said, "but I've used them in soups or as a substitute for meat, as in a spaghetti sauce, and I've made a squash soup and used crumbled, sautéed chestnuts as a garnish. I've also sautéed them in a little bit of butter until they are caramelized and put them on top of vanilla ice cream.
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"I like chestnuts and I like it when he cooks them," she said of her husband. "They go great with a glass of wine, especially on a cold day."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Adapted from a story in the September-October issue of California Bountiful magazine.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.
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