Chestnut harvest time still excites local farmer

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:09 AM

“The wind today is strong enough to be a problem because of the weight of the chestnuts on the trees,” Winkel said.

The Allendale man was also busy Friday getting ready for the first open house of the season, which is planned for today.

The event runs from noon to 5 p.m. at the farm, 10788 Garfield St. off 104th Avenue south of Leonard Road. A map is available online at www.chestnutfarms.com.

Open houses are also planned for Oct.  8 and 15, with a special “Brewing with Chestnuts” planned for Oct. 15.

Winkel said refreshments will be served and visitors will be able to sample raw and roasted chestnuts. A variety of products including chestnut pancake mix and chestnut honey will be available for purchase. There will also be products made from chestnut wood and leaves.

Chestnuts will be for sale for $5 a pound pre-picked, or for $3 a pound U-pick.

Winkel said the U-pick will be open every day from noon-5 p.m., probably through Oct. 8. After that time, people should call the farm at 616-837-4189, or his home at 616-895-1332, to see if there is still some crop.

“It’s falling early this year,” he said. “That’s because more weather has been a little bit warmer than usual this fall.”

The chestnuts ripen and drop to the ground from late September through mid-October, Winkel said. The next few days will be the best for U-pick because of the amount of chestnuts dropping off the trees.

The nuts are harvested from the ground, although some people try to shake the trees to get them to drop, Winkel said. The Winkels normally close for a couple of days during the week to let the trees recover.

This year things are happening too fast, so people need to get to the farm and get the nuts off the ground before they are eaten by the wildlife, Winkel said.

“Everything in the neighborhood wants to eat them,” he said.

Winkel said that includes the deer, turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, woodchucks and blue jays.

“As a rule, if they are out here overnight they’ll disappear,” he said. “So we try to pick them up every day.”

The Winkels bought the 10-acre parcel in Crockery Township in 1979 when it was still an old cornfield, he said.

“I was looking for something meaningful to do with it,” said Winkel, who was also working as an engineer.

Around 1990-91 Winkel said some people in Traverse City were promoting growing chestnut trees to provide more crop diversity in the area.

“So I went and listened to them talk,” he said.

Winkel decided if he could grow the chestnuts, he certainly could sell them.

The first trees, Chinese chestnuts, were planted as seedlings in 1991. Winkel said he currently has 350 mature trees and about 250 seedlings on the property.

It took 8-15 years for the first batch of trees to mature.

“It’s like a class full of kindergartners. They all come along at their own pace,” he said.

When the trees were age 10-12, he started harvesting enough chestnuts to sell.

In the meantime he cycled through the field planting more seedlings, including the European and Japanese varieties. Without irrigation, many of the trees died, so Winkel said he started grafting branches from the stronger trees into his seedlings.

“I have been watching for productive trees that do well in this soil and climate,” he said.

Another edible variety is the American chestnut. But Winkel said he does not have any of those trees because they are too susceptible to disease.

He also noted that people should not mix up the edible chestnuts with horse chestnuts.

Those have heavy spikes on the outer covering, called the burr, he said. The edible chestnuts have more of a spiny or needle-like texture. The edible fruits also have a tassel on the nuts.

As some of the chestnuts fell around him, Winkel smiled.

“I like the sunny October days with the sound of the chestnuts falling to the ground,” he said.

“This demonstrates that this can work in Michigan,” he added. “I think I can do this for another 20 years.”


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