Acotanc: Chestnuts at Dwellingup--Tree Crops Versus Forest

Chestnuts at Dwellingup--Tree Crops Versus Forest

Author: Philip Bodeker
E-mail: [email protected]
Organization: Tehilla Farm
PO Box 94 Dwellingup WA 6213
Phone +61 8-95381388 Fax: +61 8-95381598
E-mail: [email protected]

The speaker's personal experiences in establishing a chestnut orchard and dealing with problems such as birds, animals, diseases and marketing.

John and Beth Evans are what I would call the top end of the production market because they produce a lot more nuts than my wife, Janice, and I do. Last year we produced about 400 kg, which is pretty small time. I think John and Beth produced about 5 tonnes and use a big mechanical harvester which picks the nuts up, shells them and does marvelous things. We just use our hands. We are down at the small end. We also started our chestnut venture with the aim of supplementing our retirement. We are now both retired. This thing comes along once a year and we are frantically picking up, trying to beat these little things called Twenty-eights, green parrots. They are very destructive birds.

When I was first asked to present this paper, we discussed calling it something like 'Chestnuts in Dwellingup, our experiences.' Later, considering the theme of this conference, Tree Crops Essential for the Earth, I thought maybe we would try something like 'Tree Crops Versus Forest,' because unlike John, who went to great pains selecting his property, we just chose a beautiful piece of forest, fell in love with it. There were some cleared bits of land in the middle. We just bought it, and there we were.

I want to talk about this problem of trying to introduce tree crops in opposition to indigenous species and pathogens and everything else that we have in our marvelous forests. I chose some sub-titles like Predatory Parrots, Recalcitrant Kangaroos, Killer Eucalypts and Pensioner Pickings, which is us.

Every horticulturalist in Australia knows that when you set up an orchard, a nut plantation or a tree crop, it is desirable, in fact it is essential, to remove first any vestige of original vegetation, particularly native tree roots that may carry harmful fungi. What we didn't realise when we were setting up our property was, even if your clearing is good and your hygiene is good, just having a forest next to your cleared property represents on-going biological warfare with all the original inhabitants. After looking enviously at other commercial growers' fast-growing chestnut crops, I am convinced that when it comes to chestnuts, you are better off choosing a piece of well-used, even well-worn agricultural land, as far as possible from any forests. Land, if you like, that has already been quarantined, perhaps for many decades, against the hostile indigenous plants, animals, birds, insects, fungi and pathogens. While this systematic process we have of clearing, fencing, shooting, slashing, deep-ripping, rotary hoeing, plowing, grazing, fertilising, and pesticiding. These are sad words if you are a greenie, and we happen to be greenies; we love our forests. So when we moved into this environment, we were very reluctant to try any of these things. We just started off with our little bit of dirt in the middle of the trees.

Here is our forest. If you look to the right of that large tree, that is our house. We are right in the thick of some very beautiful forest, but there is a lot of competition there. We live close by Dwellingup, about an hour and a half south of Perth. Lately it has become a very popular holiday resort, a very relaxing place to go and spend some hours in the forest. Janice and I developed our bush block from scratch, virtually, over thirteen years, mainly working on weekends, because we had city jobs. More lately, we have retired. I use that word 'retired' very loosely, because we also grow brown boronia, free range eggs and supply the local Millhouse Restaurant and Chocolate company. Janice does some part-time teaching, and I do a bit of freelance writing. We just opened our bed and breakfast business, and I am going to have to rush off because we have a busy list of guests for Easter.

Inglehope was originally a string of little railway sidings and five to ten-acre properties along the Hotham Valley Railway Line when the area was being logged for jarrah more than 100 years ago. In the early 1900s the properties were used to grow potatoes, and I believe, from some early accounts, oats. Much of this land was totally cleared, flattened by all sorts of early steam machinery, but it has all started to grow back to forest. Most of it is now privately owned. There are about 15 privately-owned properties along this little string of Inglehope. John Knowles owns one of the properties, as do we.

Our initial purchase of land was 5 acres, and we now have 16. It had a couple of small, semi-cleared patches where the loamy sand was extremely impoverished. So much so, that the only thing growing there naturally was bracken and a microscopic clover, which with fertilising now grows knee high, and the familiar Cape Weed, which used to have flowers about 3 mm in diametre. Now they are about 2 inches across.

We had never tasted a chestnut, or even seen one. Just read about them. We thought that this was the only thing that was not going to get destroyed by birds, so, that is what we would grow. Birds keep coming back into these conversations about nuts, because Twenty-eights and Redcap Parrots in our area, and in some areas, the Black Cockatoos, are big predators of nuts and fruit. Twenty-eights are the worst in our area. We chose chestnuts because we though Twenty-eights wouldn't eat them. Well, this is right--they don't eat them when they are growing on the tree, but the minute they fall, you have to get there fast, because they do. Being in the middle of the forest, if there is a big blossoming of the jarrahs or redgums or the blackbutts, the birds come in for the flowers, the flowers die and the birds come in for anything else at all.

Being bird lovers, we chose chestnuts. There were other encouraging signs also, because at Dwellingup there is a tree that was once known as the 'Thousand Dollar Chestnut Tree.' It is actually at Holyoak, you can go and have a look at it. It was called that because about ten or fifteen years ago, the nuts that fell off it were actually sold for a thousand dollars. Those were the days when chestnuts used to bring $20 per kilo. This is one of the reasons we got into the business.

In 1988 when we bought our property, large chestnuts were not plentiful in Western Australia, and the southern European people were paying a lot of money for them. They loved them and were prepared to pay this money. We figured we were going to make a fortune. We plant 300 trees, and we get 10 kilos per tree after 10 years, 3 tonnes of nuts, $50,000. That is plenty to retire on. So we would retire and have this crop to sustain us in our later years. So last year, some 12 years on, we harvested 400 kg. We were very pleased with that. We thought, OK, we have done a lot of work, we have grafted a lot of new varieties, because we had a lot of problems with old varieties that wouldn't work.

We are in the middle of picking now, and as John says, the summer has been exceedingly dry, and there is the problem of some nuts that won't open. We just finished picking the Marinos and now we are moving on to a late variety which will hopefully produce the rest of our harvest. But because of the dry season, they are not opening up, and I have no idea what is in them. I have to personally go and wrench open each one. I don't have a machine; I do it by hand. It is pretty slow pickings.

That was the land we put our first chestnuts in. It looks great, the soil looks good, but in fact, it just had nothing in it. It has improved over the years, as a good soil with a good tilth will if you can get it to live. Just as our chestnut trees were starting to look good, we lost 100 trees in our first paddock of 150. I have never been able to pin down the cause. Your borer story might be the answer, John. But what we attributed it to, and tested as, was a fungus called Monochaeta (?), which came in after a heavily frosty year when we had -6, -8 degrees, everything froze. That spring, all these trees had totally dead tops. We were about ready to sell up and go. But everything died except the roots, which threw up suckers. The next year we selected the strongest suckers and we grafted them. That is our late season crop, a variety called Neil's Special (?). They are not John's favourite, but they do well where we are. So, we made a bit of a comeback there and got going again.

It is very interesting how Manjimup Mahogany, useless in my opinion, is itself grafted onto another rootstock. What we did was cut out all our Autumn Bounties and regrafted them. Where I have regrafted them with either Manjimup Mahogany or Buffalo Queen, the shoots have been fantastic. They have begun twice as vigourously as the original tree, have wonderful new growth, big nuts. I'm thinking, you have to have a good strong rootstock, but what about the bit in between? Does that contribute to the final vigour of the new scions? I think that is what has happened. Somehow, Autumn Bounty is a great intermediate graft material. Manjimup Mahogany itself is a good rootstock.

One of the things you have to do when you are in a forest is think about kangaroos. They just bounce through our property like it belongs to them. We thought of lots of ways of putting up kangaroo fencing. We came across the idea of putting up a green pine pole every 5 or 6 metres and stringing six-foot chickenwire loosely. The kangaroos come along, go boing, make a big dent in it, but they don't get through it. We have ended up with 2 or 3 kilometres of this chickenwire around all of our chestnut paddocks. Once the fencing was up, it gave us an opportunity to graze something in amongst the trees. We didn't want sheep because we were only there on weekends, so we chose poultry. A caretaker lived on our property and did basic things and we ran ducks, turkeys and geese initially. We had some problems because ducks and geese eat young chestnut bark. They started to ringbark the trees. That is why we had to put the rings around them. Later on, we found that we had little bugs eating the leaves, and grasshoppers. Della Franca, up in Roleystone said that if we wanted to be rid of grasshoppers and bugs, just put in 10 turkeys per acre. You have to be careful of foxes. So we put in the turkeys, and they do all those things, but when the nuts fall, they eat the nuts. So, not only do we have parrots, we have turkeys eating our chestnuts. They can't eat the very big nuts, they eat the little nuts, so you have to get the little ones fast. We have now gone more into chickens than other poultry, and they supply free range eggs for the Millhouse Cafe, which recently won the Mandurah Crabfest Recipe contest with an excellent crab omelette, and our eggs were in those omelettes.

The Twenty-eights, which you heard so much about, are there pretty well all the time. When you are picking chestnuts, if you leave them till they drop, you have to move fast. If the Twenty-eights get there first, they will get one in every three. If I don't pick them up for two days, I will lose the lot. So what I do a lot is actually pick them off the tree if I can. My trees aren't huge; I have kept them close to the ground purposely. I go around and take the burrs off as soon as they open. This way I get a nice clean nut that hasn't dropped on the ground. I can just pop it straight into a bag and walk around harvesting my nuts like you would apples. Wearing gloves, of course, and just squeezing the nuts out.

Pensioner pickings, I need to talk about. We got $7 per kilo for chestnuts at the Canning Vale Markets. We thought that was a good price. Last year we got $5. But then I discovered they are now charging 15% to sell those for me, and they are putting 10% GST on that service fee. So I end up paying 16%, one dollar in every six. I am thinking of other ways of selling chestnuts. Last weekend, Janice and I attended the pumpkin festival at Dwellingup, and we sold roasted chestnuts there at the pumpkin show. I took along 20 kg, thinking I would never sell that much. We sold every chestnut--we could have sold twice that amount. It was just the carnival atmosphere. Half of them I pre-boiled in salt and half were pre-boiled in honey, and some were just au naturel. Every one sold. We sold them at $2 for 200 grams, which works out at $10 per kilo, which means that the locals were still selling them raw at the price I was selling them cooked, so I wasn't making a lot of money.

To sum up, we have had a lot of setbacks and overcome them. We are still only producing a small number of nuts after a long time. A lot of our trees originally had very unsatisfactory nuts growing on them. One of them named Autumn Bounty is a cow of a nut. Its timing is perfect, comes right at the end of the season when there are no other nuts available, but one of the problems is that is does like to hang in the burr and you have to wrench it out. The other problem is that once you have wrenched it out, the nut has a great big split in it. The final problem is that they taste awful. So even if you do get some nice nuts and you harvest them and market them, you hope, My God, I hope nobody finds out where they came from.

There are all these problems that you overcome, and you learn more, and growers are terrific. You talk to them and they tell you all these things. Would we grow chestnuts again? I think we would. We have had a lot of fun, and as nut growers say, "There is always next year."