Donna McKenna of Nuthouse Farms, Inc. is working hard to try to ensure a future for the American chestnut, which once came close to dying off. She hopes to revitalize the joy of local, delicious chestnuts, a tradition that was always important to her family.
Georgia Organics: What drew you to chestnut farming?
My sister, Rose Torielli, was looking for a sustainable farming business to turn into a retirement income as well as a business for future generations. Also, my grandmother’s sister, Italia, had a chestnut orchard in Italy before she died. With that in mind, she began to research chestnut growing
GO: What can you make with chestnuts?
Chestnuts are not only great roasted, which is my favorite way to eat them, but they also can be found in truffles or ground into a sweet gluten-free pastry flour.
GO: Why did American chestnut trees die off?
Local chestnuts were hard to find even in my childhood, the 1960’s, as the once abundant American chestnut trees were almost completely destroyed by a bark fungus accidentally introduced from the Orient in 1904. Most of the chestnuts grown in this country after that were Chinese chestnuts which were resistant and most of the chestnuts sold in the US were and still are imported.
GO: What type of chestnut are you growing, and why?
After doing a lot of research Rose found that a grower in Florida had been breeding a blight resistant American chestnut tree that a man named James Carpenter found. He gave it to Dr. Robert T. Dunstan who crossed it with a Chinese variety and then backcrossed it so that it is mostly American. Since then Chestnut Hill Tree Farm, run by Dunstan’s family, has been selling seedlings. We decided that this was the way to go. The Dunstan Chestnut has been blight free for over 30 years and judging from the nuts I harvested from the trees I bought a couple years ago from a local nursery, the nuts are tasty and easy to shell.
GC: What can we do to bring the chestnuts back?
There is a movement in north Georgia to reforest with American Chestnuts. They locate blight resistant trees which have grown up in the years after the blight and plant hundreds of seeds throughout the area. You can find more information about this project on Facebook at The Georgia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
Last December we planted 200 trees on our farm, Nuthouse Farms Inc. located in Newington. This winter we plan to plant 300 more. We plan to expand each year until we have 20-30 acres of chestnuts. They will bear a small crop in 5-6 years and come in to full production in 15. The trees grow as big as pecan trees and live for over 100 years. Until we can develop a big enough local market we plan to market online and at the Main Street Farmer’s Market in Statesboro, where I hope to spread the word about how good chestnuts are.
GO: What’s your favorite way to prepare a chestnut?
When we were growing up, chestnuts were a big part of our fall festivities. I remember my grandmother scooping out the nut and feeding it to me with a demitasse spoon. We would soften the shell by boiling and then piercing them with a knife. Then we would roast them in the oven or over an open fire in a wire basket until the shell split. The meat of the nut is sweet.