LANSING - Michigan's chestnut growers are facing the same problems other fruit growers confront this year.
The early surge of temperatures in March and the inevitable cold weather in April and May curtailed nut production, just as it did for apples and cherries.
"Our yield is about a quarter of last year's," said Joyce Ivory, the sales representative of Chestnut Growers Inc. (CGI), Michigan's only chestnut grower coorperative based in Jackson.
A chestnut grove is seen at a downstate location. Experts have said the unusually-warm temperatures in March, which were followed by colder conditions in April and May, combined to adversely impact the typically-abundant chestnut harvest this year. (Michigan State University photos)
Ivory grows 20 acres of chestnut trees with her husband in Hadley Township near Flint.
"There are huge demands and our supply can't meet them," she said.
Based on a report from University of Missouri, Michigan chestnuts rank as one of the sweetest.
According to CGI, Michigan has more than 180 farms growing chestnuts for commercial marketing, which is more than any other state. Most of them are small growers in the southwest corner of the state.
Chestnuts grow naturally in the state and began to be grown as a commercial crop in the 1980s.
CGI offers frozen peeled chestnuts, which extend its sales far past the fresh harvest period.
"This is especially helpful in low-yield years, such as 2012. We'll be able to provide our customers chestnuts when few others will be able," Ivory said.
To help address this year's bad yield, growers are also tapping into the value-added side of the market.
"We sell chestnut flour, which is a great alternative to wheat flour for those who have celiac problems. And we also sell chestnut chips to beer brewers to make gluten-free beer," she said.
In addition, chestnuts are roasting in November and December at farmers markets in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Royal Oak.
Meanwhile, researchers are working to make nuts more commercially successful.
"Most states produce only Chinese chestnuts, but we produce both Chinese and European-types of chestnuts," said Dennis Fulbright, a professor of plant pathology at Michigan State University.
"We call them French-style hybrids. This cultivar is a cross of Asian and European chestnuts, which we recommend most here in Michigan," said Erin Lizotte, the integrated pest management educator from MSU Extension based in Cadillac.
Fulbright and his team are researching chestnuts that have characteristics which make them easier to grow and more popular.
"For example, our shorter growing season probably reduces our yields a little, when compared to the warmer states like Ohio and Missouri. So we have the nuts that harvest much earlier without compromising on flavor, which can make the northern growers harvest before the strong wind comes and snow falls," he said.
Fulbright said researchers are also doing their best to keep insects out.
Both Fulbright and Lizotte expressed confidence in the future of Michigan's chestnut industry despite this year's low yield.
"We can help guide new potential growers much better now, and we can provide some of the best chestnuts in the world to our customers," Fulbright said.
Lizotte said, "Compared to cherries or apples, the chestnut is still a minor crop in our state, but there are more people growing chestnuts and that makes our agriculture more varied."