Dedicated pickers harvest early crop of chestnuts
• To roast fresh chestnuts, cut a shallow slice through the skin, place the nuts in a covered pan and bake in the oven at 375 degrees until the chestnuts are tender.
• Baking takes about 20 minutes, depending on freshness and the size of the chestnut.
• Chestnuts can also be roasted on the stove top on medium heat in a heavy pan, on a barbecue grill, for one to two minutes in the microwave, or in an old-fashioned popcorn popper in the fireplace.
• Roasted chestnuts peel easier when they are still hot. Other recipes include seasoning them with salt after they cool.
— Source: Chestnut Charlie’s
Christmas came early this year for the annual crowd of chestnut pickers.
Trees at Chestnut Charlie’s orchard north of Lawrence started dropping the holiday treats about two weeks sooner than normal, meaning owners Charlie NovoGradac and Debbie Milks needed pickers to help clear the orchard.
“They are pretty good this year,” NovoGradac said of the crop as he prepared Wednesday morning to weigh the buckets that pickers brought in.
NovoGradac and Milks, his wife, said they are encouraged by the size of the chestnut crop this year. And workers and volunteers who spend time picking them say they enjoy going to work outside in the organic orchard, which is on U.S. Highway 24-59 southeast of the Midland Junction.
“You get a nice light breeze, and you have all the trees, all the scenery. It’s just a real nice, beautiful experience,” said Ryan Haggerty, who is spending five days a week picking at the orchard.
The work force is split between people who made it to the top of a list to work for essentially minimum wage, volunteer groups and people who come out to pick chestnuts on weekends to keep for themselves.
NovoGradac and Milks say the demand for paid positions has exploded this year because of high unemployment. They have tried to fit in new people.
But they also give preference to pickers who return often because they are experienced and dependable. The orchard has to be cleared daily.
Haggerty, who lives in Edwardsville, graduated from Kansas University with an education degree in May, and as he is looking for a full-time job, he feels fortunate to spend a few hours each weekday at the Lawrence orchard picking the chestnuts that have fallen onto the ground from the trees.
The pay rate is 55 cents per pound for people who pick up to 250 pounds during the season, 60 cents per pound for more than 250 pounds, and 65 cents per pound for anyone who collects more than 750 pounds.
NovoGradac and Milks then clean and sort the chestnuts and refrigerate them to sell at farmers’ markets and some area grocery stores.
“Our market is a little undeveloped,” NovoGradac said.
Chestnuts aren’t as popular for people in the Midwest, he said, and a majority of the chestnuts sold in America are imported. But NovoGradac and Milks are hoping things change as word spreads about their product, including people being drawn to eating locally grown foods.
“We are raising essentially a potato or corn that falls from trees, and it can be used in any way that those grains can be used,” he said.
He enjoys chestnut recipes such as dumplings, stews and desserts.
Community groups also schedule fundraisers and trips to come pick their own chestnuts at the orchard. Anyone who wants to schedule trips to come pick their own chestnuts can get more information at www.chestnutcharlie.com. The harvest typically ends in mid-October, but since it started earlier this year, it could end earlier, NovoGradac said.
He’s hoping for a quality crop of about 1,000 pounds per acre.
Chestnut picking can be hard work, especially on the back, as workers get assigned an entire row, and they must collect all of the nuts that have fallen onto the ground. But those who keep coming back enjoy working in nature and seeing the scales tip in their favor.
“The harder you work, the faster you work, the more you can make, so you have that real possibility to make some good bank,” Haggerty said.