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Breaking Old Ground

How a Massachusetts Chestnut Grower Seeks to Shape a More Sustainable Food Future

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?

Jono Neiger poses in front of pans that are used to roast chestnuts harvested from his farm. (Liz Mirabelli Nye for The Xylom)

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.

Jono Neiger inspects a young Chinese chestnut tree on his farm. It can grow to a height and spread of about 40 feet in a sunny, open exposure and a well-drained soil. (Liz Mirabelli Nye for The Xylom)

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