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The Long and Winding Road: A Tale of the American Chestnut

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The Long and Winding Road: A Tale of the American Chestnut
Written by Stephanie Ganz | Photos by Fred + Elliott Photography

Chestnut trees were an indelible part of the Appalachian landscape before they succumbed to blight more than a century ago. Now, a Virginia couple is working to bring them back

One doesn’t get to Bryant Farm by chance. You plug the coordinates into your GPS and once you’re off the interstate, you begin to navigate a series of winding mountain roads, past farm- houses, both stately and ramshackle. Despite the best intentions of your navigation system, finding Bryant Farm requires additional verbal instructions, four-wheel drive, and a sharp eye.

As you near the farm, careening around the turns, there’s an honor-system farmstand (a table, really, with a basket) on the side of the road. A handwritten sign says “Thank you,” on a jar for collecting money, and the offerings are sparse—a handful of string beans and a half dozen tomatoes, some of which have succumbed to bites from critters that are not bound by the honor code.

Just up the road is the turn for Bryant Farm. As you ascend the ridge, rows of chest- nut trees, some still in their protective plastic tubes, flank the path. There’s a dilapidated log cabin tucked back among the oak and poplar trees that I later learn to be an old tobacco barn. It came with the property and, last year, housed a family of bears—mama, papa, and their cubs.

The Bryants’ home is a two-story brick house with a grand front porch, appointed with a couple of rocking chairs on either side of the entrance. Kim Bryant meets me at the door, two small dogs circling her in anticipation. Kim settles on the couch and eventually the dogs, Gemma and Apollo, join her. Her husband Dave takes a seat in the rocking chair.

Dave Bryant always knew that he would return to Nelson County. Working in Richmond and Northern Virginia as a software developer, he was as distant from a life on the land as a man could be, but the hills of his hometown never stopped calling. He ran his business for twenty-five years with Kim handling the marketing end of things. Eventually, the Internet gave them the ability to work remotely—very remotely. And out of Richmond to the woods of Nelson County went the Bryants. It was an easy decision.

With the move came an opportunity, a new enterprise. The Bryants longed for a farming life but hadn’t settled on a crop when Dave stumbled upon an article on chestnuts. In it, he learned that the majority of chestnuts consumed in the US were grown abroad, that domestic demand was nowhere near satisfied by domestic producers. That didn’t seem right for a crop that once dominated the very landscape where the Bryants planned to put down roots.

“The thought was, ‘hey, in this part of Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, the terrain is different,’ Dave explains. “Our land is kind of hilly, stuck here between two mountain ranges. I’m not going to stick soybeans on it; it just won’t work for that. It has to be well-suited, so I backed up and read an article that piqued my interest on chestnuts, and I said ‘that is what was grown here throughout history, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel.’ This is actually a good fit.”

By 2009, the Bryants had cleared forty-six acres of pine trees on their new property. They had a house built and began the process of planting, by hand, 250 chestnut trees. Kim says in that first year, only ten trees survived. Chestnut-starved deer made quick work of the test planting, and the Bryants had learned their first lesson: Beware the deer.

“They love chestnuts,” says Kim. “They ate the trees, and then, when the chestnuts came out, you’d go down the line, and they’d have opened up the nut and eaten it and left the shell. It looked like they’d had a party.”

While the Bryants are all for reforestation, they want to see the development of the chestnut as an agricultural product first and foremost. Eight years in, the Bryants now have twenty-three acres of chestnut trees. They’ve learned to outwit the deer through a process of meticulous and near-constant harvesting, from early in the morning to late in the evening, throughout the roughly six-week season.

Dave puts on his farming hat, a tattered straw Stetson, and leads me to the patch of trees closest to the house. In July, these trees are already busy with buds and fruit. The blossoms are small, fuzzy and white, like cattails. By late September when I return, they will have tripled in number and begun releasing their prizes, with soft thuds as they hit the earth.

These are Dunstan chestnut trees—blight-resistant, but not blight-proof (though the trees have been blight-free now for decades). The blight in question is the arch nemesis of the American Chestnut, responsible for devastating a forty-million-year-old species in the course of just forty years.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the chestnut tree was a source of livelihood from Maine to Georgia—foodstuff for wildlife and livestock, and a reliable generator of income from its good lumber. When the tree met its fungal foe in 1904, it seemed entirely possible that the mighty chestnut would be able to overcome the blight. Rather, it seemed impossible that a single spore could take down such a noble and prolific giant.

Like a plague, the blight spread, wiping out any tree in its path, some 30 million acres, until only the memories of chestnuts remained. But those memories were vivid. The trees had been an indelible part of the Appalachian landscape, part of the livelihoods of the people who lived there, and in a way, part of their families.

It would be half a century before the American Chestnut would see its first victory. And in that time, an entire generation missed the feeling of walking outside, scooping up a cracked prickly husk and fishing for one of the leathery nuts to smack open and eat raw, right there on the spot. For that generation, chestnuts existed only in Christmas carols and Italian confections. They were distant, foreign.

The Dunstan, the comeback kid of chestnut trees, was engineered by Robert Dunstan after a fellow arborist discovered a chestnut tree thriving among a grove of long dead trees. Dunstan grafted the scions of that tree onto Chinese chestnut root stock, and finally, a blight-resistant American Chestnut hybrid was born. It was the 1950s, nearly fifty years after the first sign of the blight had been reported. Many, but not all, had given up hope.

“If you have a true American Chestnut, they’ll start as a seedling and grow up for a few years,” Dave says. “But eventually the blight will kill the tree. So the tree is not completely gone, there’s just no longevity to it.” In order to survive, the American Chestnut must carry on as a hybrid, bearing the imprint of its long journey in its DNA.

This Dunstan’s future rests on more shoulders than just the Bryants’. Virginia Chestnuts, a collective of five growers—Seamans, Hopkins, and Helbert Orchards, plus Breidablik and Bryant Farm—produces well over 10,000 pounds of chestnuts each year.

“These are people we knew had existing orchard operations, and we knew that they were crazy like we were, so we convinced them,” Dave explains. “Some of the plantings are quite small, one or two acres of underutilized land. There are thousands of these underutilized fields that are perfect for this type of operation.”

“Of course, I’d like to see Virginia have 1,000 acres in trees in the next ten years, but I don’t know that there will be enough tree stock for that, so one of the things we’re working on now is developing commercial tree stock,” Dave notes. Each season, Kim and Dave go through the orchard and tag specific trees, noting their most marketable qualities—early harvest, large nuts, ample production—with the idea of grafting those scions onto root stock to produce trees for commercial sale. This, says Dave, is what will carry the Virginia chestnut industry beyond the Bryants, well into the future.

The Virginia chestnut growers do some routine maintenance during the year, kick into high gear for the harvest, and then they bring their bounty to the Virginia Chestnuts facility, located on Bryant Farm, for processing and sale. The Bryants simply cut these growers a check and send them on their way with a thank you.

“We want to be the caviar of chestnuts,” Kim says, explaining that they treat the nut like a berry, refrigerating it immediately after harvest. “When you go to the store, and you see chest- nuts sitting out there with the peanuts, they’re dry as a bone and hard as a rock. We are educating buyers that they’ve got to be kept refrigerated, especially when they get to restaurants. Now the chefs know the difference, and that’s a really big deal.”

After a morning at Bryant Farm, I make my way home with five pounds of chestnuts that I’ve harvested myself. Just as one’s entrance to Bryant Farm must be carefully calculated, so too must be your entrance into your first chestnut. After freeing a nut from its alien and dangerously prickly exterior husk, you’re left with a smooth mahogany nut that provides no clue as to how to breach it. There’s no obvious point of entry, save for a small light brown patch at the base of the nut. I give it a poke with my thumbnail, and it doesn’t budge. I wonder at the thought of who first cracked this nut, who first determined that it was both edible and worth eating.

Several minutes later, I’ve worked my way into that soft beige spot with a paring knife and pried free a yellowish jewel. Eaten raw, it’s starchy, potato-like, with the faintest nuttiness. It’s surprisingly satisfying—the act itself and the reward—and I realize now how such an impenetrable-seeming nut could have ever risen to such prominence: It’s good, and it’s worth the effort.

Roasted Chestnut Toffee Pudding