How a Massachusetts Chestnut Grower Seeks to Shape a More Sustainable Food Future
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
When Jono Neiger established Big River Chestnuts on a small slice of land in Western Massachusetts, he knew soil conditions were less than ideal for growing the trees that would produce the new farm’s namesake nuts.
A firm believer in doing the best with what you have, Neiger put 350 hybrid Chinese chestnut seedlings into the ground anyway. That was in 2018.
“Chestnut trees can handle really terrible sandy, rocky gravel going all the way up ridges and into hillsides,” Neiger explains. What they can’t handle are wet feet. They need soil that drains.
Big River Chestnuts sits on a low-lying piece of bottomland that stretches flat like a terrace along the banks of the Connecticut River. Decades of tillage, an intensive practice used in many row crop farm systems, degraded the land here, compacting soil into clay. Water infiltration, the flow of water from the soil’s surface to deeper depths, slowed significantly.
We're in rich bottomland soil that's that's been mistreated over time. It's been abused. But it is bottomland soil. -- Jono Neiger, Owner + Farmer, Big River Chesnuts
After five years in these conditions, Neiger’s chestnut trees appear to be thriving. They stood up to a summer of extreme heat and drought in New England. This fall, the young trees produced 210 pounds of glossy brown nuts in what Neiger considers the farm’s first real harvest. So what’s the secret?
On a mild day in mid-October, I joined a crowd looking to find out. We gathered for Big River Chestnuts' second annual roast, a small festival that draws together local perennial farmers, nursery owners, nut breeders, and neighbors. Attendees tend to share a curiosity about tree crops and a general concern for the fragile state of modern agriculture.
This concern comes, in part, from the knowledge that agriculture accelerates climate change. Common methods for growing commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soy also rely heavily on practices that can make farms productive but degrade soil and pollute watersheds at the same time. So how can farms meet the needs of a growing global population while protecting natural resources and biodiversity? Instead of contributing to climate change, can growing food combat it?
At the chestnut roast, Neiger leads us on a tour. We pause at the end of a row of slender chestnut trees. Standing in a baseball cap, t-shirt, and jeans, Neiger reaches up into the branches of the nearest tree to examine a spiky, chartreuse chestnut bur still holding on among the leaves.
Early signs suggest the presence of these chestnut trees and the methods Neiger uses to care for them are helping restore the land. Increasingly, growers and researchers across the country believe modern agriculture could be at the cusp of a transformation driven by tree crops.
Harnessing What Works In the Forest
Big River Chestnuts is not your average farm. Stands of reddening sumac, explosions of goldenrod, and an array of other plants grow seemingly at will. Trekking into the field, it’s hard to guess where — if at all — the different plants belong. But what looks chaotic at first proves completely intentional. Neiger points out that between chestnut trees, gangly perennial crops like elderberry, Aronia, and blackcurrant offer diversification. Native plants and grasses sprawling in wide alleys provide important habitats and food sources for pollinators.
The farming model at work at Big River Chestnuts is called agroforestry, and it's an ancient suite of practices put to use by people around the world. Indigenous groups developed these techniques to steward ecosystems to provide food, fiber, fuel, and more. Increasingly, non-Indigenous people and governments have started to learn from these methods, applying agroforestry to address conservation needs and build sustainable farm systems.
Integrating trees and perennial shrubs into farmland ushers in a host of benefits. Trees prevent erosion during floods, moderate local temperatures during heat waves, and contribute to biodiverse habitats. In a warming world, trees offer climate resiliency. They also nurture the soil. Healthy soil holds onto carbon, meaning these practices have the power to help mitigate climate change, too.
Plants store carbon in their biomass — their leaves, stems, and roots. They also shuttle it through their roots into the soil where it feeds beneficial microorganisms. In a recent report to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), a program supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Neiger and his colleagues document positive shifts in soil health at the farm over the last five years. Soil biology tests show increased soil aggregates, improved water infiltration, and softer soils, both on and beneath the surface. From under a microscope, more diverse populations of microorganisms are visible in soil samples. So far, soil organic carbon measurements on the farm have not changed, but an estimated 160 pounds per acre of carbon has already accumulated in the living trunks, branches, and roots of the chestnut trees.
Neiger tells me he and his colleagues think the trees are having a big effect on soil organic carbon but they just haven’t been able to quantify it yet. A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looks at more mature farm systems to understand agroforestry impacts on land. It compares soil samples in Iowa between a 24-year-old chestnut-pawpaw agroforestry plot, a secondary forest, and a plot planted with a row crop rotation of corn and soybeans. The row crop land was managed with no-till practices widely accepted as good for the soil. Researchers found that the carbon-capturing ability of agroforestry systems — the plots with trees — approached that of the unmanaged secondary forest and outpaced no-till practices.
Transformations of degraded soil, it seems, take time.
More Than One Way to Tree a Farm
“What are you going to do about all the sumac?”
At Big River Chestnuts, Neiger gets this question a lot. In his experience, farmers are used to orderly, tree-free environments. His farm, by comparison, is practically woods.
“There's this part of the farming culture with a history of really trying to kill everything. Just battling everything,” Neiger says.
Agroforestry requires a bit more letting go. It’s important to work with the land. A chestnut farmer following the same principles as Neiger might make different decisions based on the soil, landscape, and climate characteristics unique to their farm. Agroforestry practices can also vary widely depending on a farmer’s goals. Not everyone plants trees for crops. Trees within pastures shade livestock. Perennial shrubs planted along conventional row crop fields buffer wind and draw up excess nutrients.
Despite the many ways to put agroforestry to work, only 1.5 percent of U.S. farms reported doing so in the USDA’s last Census of Agriculture in 2017. No amount of optimism can mask the challenges of turning a conventional farm into an agroforestry farm. With tree crops like chestnuts, a farmer may wait years after planting before trees mature enough to produce a profitable crop. According to the USDA, the median annual income for farm households was $80,060 in 2020, but nearly $70,000 of that was earned through off-farm jobs. Small farms with limited resources might not have much appetite for risk.
For those with resources, planting long-lived crops like chestnuts, trees that could outlive a farmer’s grandchildren, takes generational thinking. Neiger is currently negotiating with a handful of landowners on lease agreements that will allow him to plant more chestnuts on different types of properties. During a recent conversation, one landowner said, “You know, this is basically a commitment for the rest of our lives that we’ll be in partnership.”
“It's a long-term process that’s going to take generations, but it's exciting to feel like this is a way of deepening our cultural connection to the land, each other, our food, everything.” -- Jono Neiger
Outside the demands of running a commercial farm, Neiger is an author, lecturer, and founder of the Regenerative Design Group, a Massachusetts-based firm that helps people manage land with ecologically friendly practices. He’s worked in permaculture, conservation, and agroforestry for thirty years. At one time, presentations were his main method for communicating the value of agroforestry.
“There'd be a lot of people nodding their heads and saying that's great,” he says. “But they need to see somebody doing it.” When practices represent a significant departure from the norm, it helps if the person demonstrating them comes from within a farmer’s community. These experiences inform Neiger’s approach at Big River Chestnuts — everyone is welcome to come and see.
Further west, agroforestry experts have identified some of these same challenges, and they’ve gotten a head start on solving them. At Columbia, Mo., Dr. Michael Gold, Associate Director at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, dedicates his career to making agroforestry more accessible, and growing chestnuts is his specialty.
Like Neiger, he got his start roughly thirty years ago, just as Western science was waking up to the merits of agroforestry. Gold remembers when the journal Agroforestry Systems published its inaugural issue in 1982. Bjorn Lundgren, director of the freshly minted International Council for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), introduced the journal by conceding “an embarrassing lack” of quantitative agroforestry research. Gold jumped into this work. At the Center for Agroforestry, he makes sure the science of chestnut agroforestry systems informs the practice. “The first thing that's important is that we have great confidence that we're not blowing smoke,” Gold says.
After two decades of research — biological and economic — Gold and his colleagues have a knowledge infrastructure they believe could catapult chestnut agroforestry in the U.S. At their facilities in Columbia, Missouri, local growers access a wealth of resources. They participate in workshops and attend field days that showcase local successes. They also help growers determine what kind of chestnut trees to plant through ongoing research on chestnut cultivars — varieties bred for desirable traits such as size, taste, climate hardiness, and blight resistance — and producing useful technical guides.
...if we're succeeding, and we're increasing domestic production, and there's increased demand domestically, you'd think that the amount that's coming in from abroad would start to decline because I'd rather have chestnuts from Missouri than Italy or China, and that's exactly what we see the trend in the last five years. -- Dr. Michael Gold, Associate Director, University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry
In 2020, The Center for Agroforestry received USDA funding of nearly $1 million for a long-term project to advance research on regional chestnut adaptations. Led by Gold’s colleague, Dr. Ron Revord, the project works with partnering farms across the country to produce what they’re calling a Chestnut Improvement Network, a unified effort to meet market demand for chestnuts with the best possible plant material.
For growers in the Northeast, especially emerging farmers, accessible pathways to nut processing and marketing opportunities are almost as important as securing quality plants. At Big River Chestnuts, Neiger and a small group of other growers are establishing a food hub to help connect these dots. The collaborative project will offer shared space, equipment, and market resources to area farmers.
Neiger says he isn’t trying to convince anyone to plant chestnuts. He doesn’t want to oversell the climate resiliency piece of their story yet either. He believes farmers will understand the value of chestnut agroforestry when they start to see the results for themselves: strong yields, good prices for their products, reduced labor on farms, and less need for costly inputs like fertilizers. And regardless of the motive for change, improved carbon sequestration capacity and better farm health at the ecosystem level will be long-term benefits.
The Root of It
The U.S. currently imports a majority of the chestnuts it consumes. Americans eat just a tenth of a pound (o.05 kg) per person each year. That’s almost nothing compared to European and Asian countries where consumers average one pound or more. In addition to roasting on an open fire, chestnuts can be dried and ground into flour, distilled into spirits, blended into purees, chopped into dinner dishes, and baked into desserts. They’re gluten-free and packed with protein. Soft and almost starchy, they taste sweet when cooked.
To understand why eating chestnuts is not currently as common as it could be in the U.S., some experts point to a tragedy of continental proportions. The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, once grew abundantly across the eastern part of the country. This tree was a keystone species in our forests and was foundational to Indigenous communities who continue to regard it with significance. At the turn of the twentieth century, an introduced parasitic fungus known as chestnut blight rocked forests from Georgia to Maine. It wiped out four billion trees in less time than the average human life.
Though Neiger isn’t in the business of restoring the American chestnut, this tree’s story touches the larger vision of his work at Big River Chestnuts. He’s headed into his sixth year growing blight-resistant chestnuts. More than ever, he finds that the idea of food deeply connected to place resonates as he works incrementally to build a farm that does right by people, land, environment, and climate. And who knows, maybe growing interest in climate action, nostalgia, or simply a curiosity towards new and different foods may drive consumers to demand more sustainably-harvested chestnuts, growers to be more intentional in picking cultivars, and our land to be replenished.
“It's a long-term process that’s going to take generations,” Neiger says. “But it's exciting to feel like this is a way of deepening our cultural connection to the land, each other, our food, everything.”