Problems of Setting up a Chestnut Orchard
Good afternoon, my name is John R. Evans and I have been invited to address this Miniac to relate our experience in the business of growing chestnuts. I attended the first ACOTANC conference here in Perth in 1982 not knowing anything and found it to be of great value in assisting my wife Beth and myself in the venture that we were about to embark on. I hope that I can be of some assistance to those of you present who find yourself in a similar situation.
I was born and raised in Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the semi arid region some 580kms east of Perth until the age of 16 when I joined the Royal Australian Navy. On the completion of 20years service I retired and came back to Western Australia with Beth and our family, settling in Bridgetown on a "temporary" basis. What has that background got to do with Chestnuts you may ask? Nothing really -- apart from setting the scene on the extent of our knowledge of Horticulture -- we knew how to spell the word and its definition. This presentation on the "Problems of setting up a Chestnut Orchard" is from my perspective but includes the experience of other growers that I am aware of. When I say "My" I mean my wife and I, as we are partners in our venture.
A factor that should be borne in mind by an intended grower is that the Chestnut can be likened more to a fruit rather than a nut. It has a water content of approx 45% and oil content of 5% therefore will deteriorate quite quickly through dehydration.
1. Getting Started:
1.1 Selection of Property:
The selection of the property is one of the most if not the most important decision of all. When we were looking for the land that we wanted to develop we chose Bridgetown as it is recognised for the ability to grow Walnuts, the climatic conditions in the way of rainfall and low temperatures during winter and good soil types.
We inspected numerous properties, of different soil types; with and without water; close to forest and those without forest for some distance; flat land and sloping land. I have mentioned these factors as they all have potential problems.
1.1.1 Soil Types:
A number of publications say that Chestnuts will grow in most soil types or in a wide range of conditions. This is true but each soil type has to be treated differently in as much that they have different needs. A grower in Bridgetown planted 200 trees in a sandy loam soil, fertilised by broadcast method and also through the irrigation system. Water was not a problem as there is a spring-fed dam Ð their trees have not grown, nor have they produced the way that they should have. We also bought trees from the same nursery at the same time and same batch and our trees performed well. He was disappointed, lost interest, eventually sold the property and the new owner is also not interested in the Chestnuts.
Another Grower with approx 260 trees has a gravelly loam soil that provides good drainage, the trees have been fertilised and irrigated over the summer period -- once again these trees have not grown nor produced to their potential. This has been a large source of frustration to the growers as there is no seemingly logical reason for the trees not to grow and produce to their fullest potential. The site was actually selected by an AGWEST adviser so even the experienced can get it wrong.
A third grower with 600 trees, ourselves, selected a heavy soil with a clay base therefore good water holding capability. We have fertilised through both granular ground application and also foliar sprays. We do not have an irrigation source for summer watering. Our trees have grown as expected and produce quite well. We could increase our yield with irrigation and also prevent the trees from stressing during hot periods.
We are basically dryland orchardists due to the fact that we chose a block of land that does not have a natural water supply, we have tried developing a water supply but the supply is insufficient. We do not consider this to be a problem in our case due to the soil type. The problem associated with irrigation is the aspect of developing and spreading Phytophthora cinnamomi or Jarrah Dieback which is resident in the soil and is only activated when the conditions are right. These conditions appear to be soil temperature and the presence of water in the soil so that once activated it can spread.
The benefit of irrigation is two-fold: firstly it saves the trees from heat stress therefore retaining the health of the tree; secondly and very importantly is the timing of watering: I believe that if trees are irrigated in the two weeks prior to harvest, the Chestnuts will take up the additional water thereby making them heavier as individuals. Therefore less to the kilogram and therefore a greater return making a happy grower.
1.1.3 Selection/choices of tree:
The selection of tree variety is a personal one for each grower and dependent upon the nature of the venture. When we originally designed our orchard or grove, we planned on having 800 trees and rather than having to harvest them all at the same time we decided to have an early, a mid harvest and a late harvest variety. This has worked for us but after 6 to 8 weeks of harvesting one is pleased to see the end of sore backs.
The variety of Chestnut tree determines the ease of burr separation and therefore the release of the chestnuts from the actual burr. Some varieties release better than others. A point to take into consideration for burr release is the amount of water in the burr itself. As they dry out they shrink thereby trapping the nuts inside even when the burr has dropped off the tree. This then entails more effort and time in collecting the chestnuts. Rain is a great ally at harvest as the burrs soften and split very easily throwing the nuts to the ground.
Our situation is that we have one variety that does not in general release the nuts to the ground; instead the burr falls to the ground with the nuts trapped inside. With approximately 160 trees of this variety, which is a prolific producer, it was in our best interest to purchase a vacuum harvester which also dehusks. This saves a lot of time, therefore minimising any deterioration of the quality of the nuts. If we had a good irrigation supply then possibly this problem would not arise.
This harvesting spread naturally enough leads onto the timing of the sale of the Chestnuts which I will talk about in my later presentation.
1.1.4 Natural Hazards:
Prior to leaving Canberra in 1982, Beth and I were discussing our forthcoming venture with friends and at that time we were considering almonds (everybody loves almonds) when someone asked the question: "What about the parrots?" Being an amateur I replied "What about them?!"Then the penny dropped: parrots love almonds and do not like leaving them for us humans. Thanks to Jim, we then started to think about the various nuts that we had in mind and what were the natural hazards of each and how do we overcome them
So when we decided to grow Chestnuts, we knew that the biggest natural hazard to the tree was Phytophthora cinnamomi commonly known in WA as Jarrah Dieback. Our research gave us an understanding of the disease, a way to "control" the fungus, the fact that our property had been cleared and pastured for some 70 years and the native timbers originally present were Jarrah, Marri and Blackbutt. We were aware that we could have a problem with this disease but with that knowledge we were confident enough to choose to grow Chestnuts. We have been confronted with Dieback and have lost trees. As the Chestnut tree is susceptible to root rot careful consideration should be given to the lie of the land. That is, be careful of flat land as it may not drain sufficiently well and therefore present a potential problem.
Another problem that we have had to contend with is a native tree borer. We could not understand some years ago why some of our tree branches were going soft and "bubbly" eventually dying. During a telephone discussion with John Pianegonda, a chestnut grower in Bright, Victoria, I described the symptons to him and John said that we had the borer and what to look for to confirm the cause. Look for a pinpoint hole at the base of the affected area and possibly "sawdust". With some difficulty we found the pinpoint holes. Fortunately John visited our place a few days after that phone call and with his knife he cut out part of the cambium layer and showed us the hole going into the centre of the tree and then with the aid of a microscope the actual borer. We could not believe the amount of damage that this minute borer could cause. We treated the affected trees by painting the butts of the trees with an insecticide which eradicated the pest. We continue to monitor for this pest.
Another problem disease that is much more prevalent in the eastern states than here in the west is "Phomopsis", an after harvest rot. The problem seems to occur when summer rain and high humidity are present. We get very little summer rain so the disease has not presented a problem on our orchard. It is one well worth remembering as the disease presents itself after harvest and there is nothing better to turn an end consumer off buying our product than a rotten chestnut. It does not smell nice nor does it taste good by all accounts. Research has been done into this disease and that information is now available.
Even with these natural hazards we continue to believe in our product
1.1.5 Quality Control:
This is a problem area that all growers NEED to bear in mind as it has a big impact on the marketing of our product. This will be discussed in the presentation on "Marketing of Chestnuts" later today.
When we started out to research Nuts in 1982, written material was not very evident. We contacted the Western Australian and Victorian Agricultural departments for any Agnotes or other information on nuts that could be grown in the southwest of WA. There was a reasonable amount of information available on Walnuts and Almonds but very little on Chestnuts. When I attended the first ACOTANC here in Perth in May 1982, I learnt of other material, "Growing Fruit in Australia", by Paul Baxter and also of the book produced by the Northern Nutgrowers Association (NNGA) which covered the popular nuts of the day. Both those books have been part of our library since that time and are still a reference guide. At the same time we found out about the "Granny Smith Bookshop" run by the WANATCA from where we purchased the above books along with others over the years.
Since 1982 the Chestnut industry in Australia has grown dramatically and now has a structure. The Chestnut Growers Association of Australia was formed (based in Victoria) providing a guide on growing, marketing, research etc. so that we continue to develop as an organised industry always with a quality product in mind to satisfy the end consumer. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Agriculture Victoria in association with the Chestnut industry have produced a very informative research tool for the new and existing grower: "The Australian Chestnut Growers' Resource Manual". I recommend this manual to new growers and I wish it had been around when we entered the industry instead of learning by mistakes.
1.1.7 Other Problems:
I am sure that there are other problem areas to consider and no doubt they will come to light by talking to existing growers in the particular district that you may be considering in developing a chestnut orchard. In general I have found that most growers are happy to discuss their enterprise and one could do well to talk to them.
With the benefit of talking to growers and researching the product, a new grower can plan their orchard with these problems in mind along with ongoing orchard maintenance and hygiene.
In conclusion, why did we select Chestnuts as the nut to grow? We were novices and did not want to compete with experts, the Chestnut industry was very small and fragmented and the clincher was when we read a magazine article entitled "Money DOES grow on trees!!" The article was about Chestnuts. We saw an opportunity and, Yes we have made some money along the way but more is yet to come. Our Chestnut orchard is our superannuation and travel account.
If you are considering growing Chestnuts, I wish you all the best in your endeavour.
I thank you for your attention.