Scattered throughout Appalachia, cut off from their own kind, stand the survivors.
“Think of the most amazing big oak tree that you’ve ever seen in your life and double that,” said Carolyn Howes Keiffer, a researcher at Ohio’s Miami University, describing the American chestnut tree.
All but obliterated by a blight that swept through the forests a century ago, only a few American chestnuts remain. They are the sole legacy of a species that was among the most prominent in the eastern United States.
Isolation saved the survivors, but also ensures they won’t bear fruit – it takes two chestnut trees to reproduce. The deadly fungus still lingers in the forest soil, barring any chance of the tree’s return.
But Greg Miller thinks he can change that.
A chestnut empire
Call it the “bread of the mountains” or the “corn tree.” But don’t call it a nut.
“The worst thing we do is call them nuts, because they really are used like a fruit or a vegetable,” said Miller, who operates Empire Chestnut Company, a tree farm in Carroll County.
A seasonal delicacy in the United States and a staple of Asian cooking, the chestnut’s grain-like qualities have made it an important food source for thousands of years, Miller said. The tree was so prevalent in the Appalachian Region that the nuts were simply gathered as a cash crop when they fell in the forest.
“There never really was a chestnut orchard industry (in the United States),” Miller said.
The Empire Chestnut Company started when Miller’s father began planting a variety of fruit and nut trees in 1958. Among them were Chinese chestnuts, which are naturally immune to the blight. The trees grew so well that in 1970, Miller planted 600 seedlings and by 1984, selling chestnuts became his occupation.
“It’s a full-time job; half-time pay,” he joked.
But Miller and his farm also are part of a larger effort to bring back the American chestnut, albeit with a few modifications.
Battling the blight
The blight hit trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. By 1910 it was in Pennsylvania. It was moving 50 miles south per year. By 1950, the American chestnut was almost as good as gone.
It’s believed the blight was imported on an Asian chestnut tree. Ironically, researchers are now turning to Asian chestnuts to save the American tree from extinction.
Miller, who holds degrees in plant biology and forestry, is working with other researchers to breed American and Chinese chestnuts. The goal is to find a tree that has all the traits of the American species with the blight resistance of the Chinese.
“The ones that we’re working with here in Ohio are 94 percent American,” Miami’s Keiffer said.
Keiffer is confident the tedious work of breeding generation after generation of chestnuts is worth the effort.
“All parts of the tree are valuable,” she said.
Relatively easy to grow, American chestnuts are tall and are well-suited to produce lumber. The wood is as hard as oak and extremely rot resistant.
“People could build decks and outdoor structures out of chestnuts,” Keiffer said.
Chestnut wood once used for old barns and fences, today is being reclaimed to make furniture. Often speckled with insect holes, this lumber is commonly known as wormy chestnut.
Miller sells thousands of chestnut leaves each year to a cheesemaker in Indiana. The cheese is wrapped in the leaves, which are unfolded, giving the appearance of a sunflower.
Chestnuts also remain a popular food item for humans and wildlife.
“Plus it belongs here,” Keiffer added, noting that people were ultimately responsible for the downfall of the tree.
A growing industry
When he’s not breeding trees, Miller continues to grow, harvest and sell chestnuts, primarily the Chinese variety, to customers across the country.
“In terms of nut quality, I think the Chinese and the American share a lot of similar characteristics,” he said.
The United States ranks relatively low in chestnut production, yielding only 200 tons annually. That’s less than half of what it imports. Compare that to China, which produces 200,000 tons annually.
“The few chestnut growers there are, we all know each other,” Miller said.
But he said demand is increasing, largely from Asian immigrants. Much of Miller’s 10- to 15-ton crop will end up at Oriental markets in New York City. Initially concerned about competing with Chinese imports, Miller said customers would rather purchase his product.
“They really want the fresh chestnuts, and they want them locally grown,” he said.
Plus, he pointed out that as personal income improves in China, so will the demand for better food, including chestnuts.
“If everybody in China ate a handful, they’d eat them all,” he said.
Miller sells all of his chestnuts soon after harvest in late September. He said because of limited U.S. supply, the vast majority of the nuts found in the grocery store at Christmas are from Italy.
“I think the domestic growers are slowly pecking away at that,” he said.
While in an ideal location to ship chestnuts to eastern markets, the Empire Chestnut Company’s biggest challenge is the harvest. Unlike in China, where chestnuts are beaten loose with bamboo poles, Miller waits for the nuts to naturally fall in autumn.
“When they fall off the trees, it’s a race between us and the wildlife,” he said.
Because there are no mechanized harvesters for chestnuts, Miller hires anybody willing to carry a 5-gallon bucket to pick his crop. He said kids often participate in the harvest for fund-raisers or families for recreation.
“If there was one more grower in Carroll County, there wouldn’t be enough pickers for the both of us,” he said.
Ultimately, Miller sees chestnuts as a valuable crop and an important part of the forest ecosystem. Always looking to improve chestnut production, he operates under the motto “plant the best, and eat the rest.” But by his own admission, Miller knows he is not going to get rich breeding trees.
“I just want to survive,” he said.
Perhaps with his help, so will the American chestnut.