Just as we equate the autumn with picking pumpkins, squash and apples, nuts are available as well. Regional farmers are more than delighted to have visitors rummage about for that perfect pecan or chestnut. Gathering nuts is a rite of passage in the fall.
Did you know that many nut trees will grow where winter temperatures stay above -20 degrees? Throw in some full sun, a rich earth of deep soil and adequate water, and the nut production will eventually be yours. As a rule of thumb, wherever peach trees prosper, so shall nut trees.
Nuts are a big money business; one tree can earn anywhere from $250 -$1,000 a season, depending on the variety. If a smart grower can corner their area market, the money tree is just dropping those golden nuggets like flies right in their backyard. Some nuts are, of course, out of our habitat zone, like the tropical cashews or Brazil nuts, grown best in Southern Florida. Macadamia trees are native to Australia and grow well in Hawaii and Southern California. The elusive pistachio grows in California. In Kansas, however, growers can cultivate chestnuts, pecans and walnuts.
"Chestnuts are the 'un-nut,'" says Charlie NovoGradac, who co-owns Chestnut Charlie's along with his wife, Debbie Milks. "That is, they are principally low-fat carbohydrate food - a chestnut's fat/carbohydrate/protein ratio is closer to that of wheat. It is called the 'corn that grows on trees.'"
NovoGradac cites his father as an influence on his profession.
"I have been planting and gathering walnuts since a boy with Dad in Wyandotte County," he says. "Wherever I have lived, I have planted trees for food. The current Lawrence orchard, started in 1995, is a demonstration project for organic, sustainable, woody-perennial agriculture."
At Chestnut Charlie's they focus mainly on their namesake, but they dabble in pecans, black walnuts and the experimental, cold-hardy Carpathian (Persian) walnuts.
And like most things worth having, a good nut production takes time. In most cases a grower might not experience a bounty for at least a decade. But for those who do possess the fortitude to nurture and the faith to believe, the reward will come.
"Production is yet to commence for the 'nuts,' but the chestnuts, 'the un-nuts,' have been producing at some level off and on since 1999," NovoGradac says. "Chestnuts ripen and fall from mid-September through mid-October and are picked up daily and refrigerated. We advertise ahead and usually get a goodly number of local people who like to gather chestnuts, a little or a lot."
At Chestnut Charlie's you may buy your nuts by the pound at the farm, or by mail. They also are sold at the Lawrence Farmers Market, and also at the Missouri Chestnut Days annual fair. They supply the Community Mercantile and Au Marche in Lawrence.
Down on the banks of Perry Lake, pecans are grown at River Field Farm.
"Pecans are not usually grown this far north in Kansas," says farm owner Robert Russell, who planted 600 seedling pecans in 1987 and 1988. The farm now boasts over 11 different cultivars of northern pecans, has a you-pick operation on Saturdays and Sundays over the harvesting season, and supplies the Community Mercantile with many of their pecan confections.
"Pecans are slow to come into production," Russell says. "It probably takes 15 years if started from seedlings and grown under low-input techniques without irrigation."
He says thus far, the farm has been free of insects and pests that hurt production.
"As that inevitably changes, I think dealing with pecans pests will be a major downside to pecan culture," he says.
NovoGradac perhaps best sums up the art of nut planting.
"Planting trees is a righteous and environmentally healing labor," he says. "Farming trees for food is the best example of sustainable agriculture. By eliminating the plow, we reduce erosion and degradation of our soils, allowing for carbon sequestration, which can moderate global warming.
"Trees are part of the solution, and we like being in the thick of it."
Chestnut Charlie's Braised Chestnuts
4 cups chestnuts, peeled and whole
Half cup sweet onion (finely chopped)
1 cup port wine
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat heavy saucepan and add the oil, butter and chopped onions. When the onions turn slightly brown, deglaze with port wine. Add thyme, chestnuts, stock and salt and pepper. Cover and cook until chestnuts are tender and have absorbed most of the liquid. This will take an hour or so. Serve as a whole-braised chestnut or pass through a ricer to make a wonderful chestnut puree.
River Field Farms Pecan Sandies
1 cup butter
2 and 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup fresh pecans, shelled and finely chopped
1 cup powdered sugar
Preheat oven 325 degrees. In a mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for about 30 seconds. Add half the flour, the sugar, the vanilla and 1 tablespoon of water. Beat until thoroughly combined. Mix in the remaining flour and stir in chopped pecans. Shape into 1-inch balls, place on an ungreased cookie sheet, and bake for about 20 minutes. Cool the cookies on a wire rack. When cooled, shake them gently a few at a time in a bag with the powdered sugar. Makes about 36 cookies.