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Michigan chestnut industry struggles to meet demand

Chestnut Growers, Inc.

It's the season for roasting chestnuts over an open fire - and an increasing number of Michigan farmers are growing them.

Roger Blackwell is head of Chestnut Growers, Inc. That's a co-operative of 29 chestnut tree growers in Michigan.

He says, at a thousand acres, Michigan has more land planted in chestnut trees than any other state.

Right now, the state is producing about 100,000 pounds of chestnuts a year.

Blackwell expects that to go up five-fold in a decade.

"The market, tomorrow, if I had a million pounds of chestnuts, I could move a million pounds of chestnuts," he says.

Today's U.S.-produced chestnuts come from a cross between a blight-resistant European and Japanese chestnut variety.  They compete well with Italian-grown chestnuts, says Blackwell.

"Where blueberries grow, where cherry trees grow well, peach trees, this particular cultivar grows well in those locations," he says.

Blackwell sells roasted chestnuts at farmer's markets.  He says about half of people who come by the stand have never tasted one.

Most of the chestnuts planted in Michigan come from clones of a California tree, nicknamed "Colossus," for its great size and nut-bearing capacity.

Blackwell tells people planning to buy chestnuts at the store to make sure they are fresh.  Unlike most nuts, chestnuts have a high water content, which means they must be refrigerated -- otherwise, they'll dry out.

Separately, groups are trying to re-establish the American chestnut in forests.  The tree was prized for its solid and water-resistant wood, not its sweet (but tiny) nuts.

A blight caused by an invasive species wiped out the tree by the mid-20th century.

Researchers have crossed surviving members of the American chestnut with a blight-resistent tree from Europe, and hope to reestablish the tree in the U.S. with those seedlings.