Kansas City, Mo You won't find many chestnuts roasting on open fires this holiday season. Once a staple food in the diets of American Indians and Appalachian pioneers, they have been scarce since the late 19th century.
Two forestry researchers from the University of Missouri at Columbia are working to change that.
The two, Michael Gold and Ken Hunt, lead research that is developing imported chestnut tree varieties for the region's commercial nut growers and backyard gardeners.
"It's like a sweet, starchy vegetable," said Gold, an associate forestry professor. "They are nutritious, very healthy and very low in fat. That's why we call them the un-nut."
In the late 1800s, an Asian tree disease wiped out most of the nation's large chestnut trees, Gold said. Sprouts from stumps survived but not large trees.
Plant breeders are trying to develop an American chestnut that is resistant to blight. But that could take 50 years, Gold said.
The American chestnut isn't native to Missouri or Kansas, but Chinese chestnuts grow well here, he said. They also have a better nut for eating.
"Where the nuts in the American chestnuts are the size of an acorn, the Chinese chestnuts are the size of a golf ball, if you get the good ones," he said.
Some grocers sell chestnuts imported from Italy or China during the holidays for $3.50 to $4 a pound, said John Wagner, retail sales manager for Liberty Fruit Company Inc., a produce wholesaler in Kansas City, Kan.
But with lower transportation costs, Missouri and Kansas farmers might cut that price, Wagner said.
For farmers, chestnuts could become an alternative side crop in hilly country, Gold said, one that could be combined with haying between trees. Chinese chestnuts grow well here, but need well-drained soil and plenty of sun with no shade.
Missouri and Kansas growers are just beginning to look at chestnuts as a crop, and it will take 15 years for a local market to develop fully, Gold said.
The market is weak because most American consumers aren't familiar with the nuts and the crop is seasonal, Gold said. Grocers often don't handle them properly either, he said.
Chestnuts have a spiny burr over the nutshell. Sometimes the nuts fall from the burr to the ground, and sometimes they have to be removed from the burr, said Charles NovoGradac, who is growing organic chestnuts at his farm near Lawrence.
"It's like a little porcupine," NovoGradac said. "You need leather gloves to handle them."
NovoGradac's first crops have varied in yield. His young trees are battling drought and may be a few miles too far west to do well, he said. But he thinks chestnuts may be a viable crop if grown east of Kansas City.