Open Collective
Open Collective
What's the Secret Behind Big River Chestnuts' First Harvest?
Published on January 19, 2023 by Alex Ip

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.

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?