NY Potential in Perennial Nut Crops

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly        9-22-21

By Eric and Cathleen Banford

New York State has a long history of nut growing and harvesting, dating back at least 6,000 years. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in this nutritious, perennial crop as part of our agricultural systems. Samantha Bosco, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University’s School of Integrated Plant Science, recently gave an inspiring and informative talk on the history and potential of nuts.

The talk was titled “Nut Production in New York: Past, Present, Future” and is available on the Cornell Small Farms YouTube Channel, along with other talks from the current series. Bosco covered the history of nut tree cultivation in the area and how their local production can help meet climate resilience and social justice goals.

Cornell’s Agroforestry website explains that “Agroforestry describes a wide range of practices that integrate trees, forests, and agricultural production. These systems preserve and enhance woodland and tree landscapes and are an important solution to climate change and in developing healthy farm economics. Agroforestry is rooted in both Indigenous knowledge from around the world and in the work of numerous individuals who have conducted research and engaged as practitioners over centuries.”

Locally harvested nuts: hazelnut, hickory, bitternut, and butternut. Photo by Eric Banford.

“I’m trying to envision and help create new forms of sustainable agriculture, not only in terms of ecological sustainability, but I really think it’s important that we think hard about ways that we can leverage social justice as an important integral part of any kind of future,” Bosco said.

In her research at Cornell, Bosco has been focused on these main questions: What is the historical significance of nut trees in New York? Who, where, how and why are people growing nuts? How do we best grow nuts for climate-smart agriculture?

“One of the really important qualities that nut trees have that give them such important impacts and landscapes and in human cultures is how nutritious they are,” she said. “In particular, they had exceptionally high amounts of polyunsaturated fats, which are extremely healthy for humans. So, this is one of the most important aspects of nuts, not only ecologically but how they can fit into creating healthier and more sustainable food systems in the future.”

Bosco shared a slide demonstrating the nutrient values of nuts versus beef. Per ounce, walnuts have 18 grams of healthy fats, 4 grams of carbs and 4 grams of protein. Hazelnuts contain 17, 4 and 4 grams, respectively, while beef has the same 4 grams of protein but zero healthy fats or carbs.

Indigenous peoples used nuts as a fairly reliable food source; evidence such as charred remains of nuts shells have been discovered as far back as 3000 BCE at a site known as Lamoka Lake in between Keuka and Seneca lakes.

“This was the very first time that there was archaeological evidence that Indigenous peoples existed this far into the past [in this area],” Bosco said. “Before this, archaeologists thought that Indigenous peoples were a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, and they used that as ways to justify the dispossession of land.”

Bosco noted that “This site totally overturned previous notions of the population and history of what is today New York state. Some of the remarkable things that were found here was a gigantic acorn roasting bed that was 30 feet long, 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep of just charred acorn and hickory nut ashes, and also a collection of these specialized stone tools that were used for processing plant material.”

Seneca archaeologist Arthur Parker wrote, “Nuts were an important part of the Iroquois diet. Great quantities were consumed during the nut season, and quantities were stored for winter use. The nut season to the Iroquois was one of the happiest periods of the year.”

After Bosco’s fascinating overview on the history of nuts, she shifted focus to chestnuts and hazelnuts and their current potential in agriculture. To grow chestnuts in the Northeast, Chinese, Japanese or hybrid species are needed due to the blight that wiped out American chestnuts in the early 1900s. Current research at SUNY-ESF is working on bringing back the American chestnut via transgenic breeding.

With the proper spacing of trees, a mature chestnut grove can produce around 2,000 pounds of nuts per acre, which can be very profitable. Chestnuts will grow in marginal soil and are fairly drought resistant, making them a resilient crop. And they can be eaten fresh, roasted or processed into flour, polenta or other value-added products.

As for hazelnuts, they are native to the Northeast but are susceptible to Eastern Filbert Blight. Researchers have crossbred different European and American varieties to create cold-hardy, disease-resistant plants. Hazelnuts also do well with marginal soils and conditions.

“There’s so many really amazing folks working on making better nut trees all across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest,” Bosco said. “I think that nuts have a really bright future because of what’s going on.”

Various “nut collectives” are pooling resources to produce nut butter, flours, nut oils and other products. The New York Tree Crops Alliance (NYTCA) just established a cooperative that is looking for new members. They recently purchased a nut press for shared processing and are researching grants and a commercial space. Cooperatives like this are a promising model for small farmers to remain financially viable.

“I’m doing some field experiments on orchard establishment variables and also trying to quantify biomass carbon sequestration,” Bosco said. “I’m working on chestnuts to see how much carbon could be sequestered if we were to scale up chestnut production across the state.”

New York state was virtually clearcut by the 1910s and has now regenerated much of its forestland. Bosco questions how much we can steer and shape that reforestation, much like the Indigenous people did long ago to produce a robust, diverse foodscape.

“Can we shape the way forests come back so they not only produce food but that they also combat climate change?” Bosco said. “In New York state, there [are] 1.7 million acres of underutilized land, which is a seventh of the entire landmass of New York state. And so, just 3% of that, if we were taking this idle scrubland, is 51,000 acres. That’s a huge amount, and right now, it’s not really being used at all.”

Considering this underutilized land, Bosco shared some quick calculations.

“At an average yield of 2,000 pounds of chestnuts per acre per year and at a conservative estimate of $5 per pound, after we reach full production, we can have $2.5 billion of gross revenue,” she said. “This is a really encouraging sign. We can stimulate a really important part of agricultural industry that could help revitalize our rural landscapes, giving lots of people jobs, store carbon, and make really high-quality food. So, I think that nuts have a huge potential in that way.”

“Do we have an opportunity to steer this reforestation to something that can benefit people and the planet, at the same time?” Bosco said.

Bosco is obviously hopeful that the answer to this can be a resounding yes.

More information can be found at Cornell’s Agroforestry website.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles