The Land: The challenges of chestnuts, Conrad Farms.

October 5, 2016
Pete and Connie Conrad

Pete and Connie Conrad

 

The Land: The challenges of chestnuts, Conrad Farms.

#TheLand #MasonCountyAgriculture

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

AMBER TOWNSHIP — Just a few miles southwest of Scotville, along the banks of the Pere Marquette River, on the road named after the family, is Conrad Farms. The farm’s origins date back to the mid-1880s, making it one of the oldest, continuously operated farms in Mason County. Pete Conrad is the fifth generation of Conrad to farm in Amber Township. He and his wife, Connie, live on Conrad Road just about a mile from the original farmstead.

The 520 acre farm grows a variety of traditional west Michigan crops: asparagus, snap beans, corn, wheat, and rye. But, the conversation piece on the farm is its 9 acres of chestnuts. So much so, that Pete even installed a sign at the corner of Conrad and Stiles roads that explains what types of trees are located in the orchard there.

conrad_chestnuts_the_land_amber_township“We got introduced to chestnuts about 15 years ago,” Pete says. “There was a gentleman at the farm who was there on agriculture business. Among other things, he was growing chestnuts at his Grand Haven farm. He left some literature and Connie found it intriguing. I had only had field crops up until that point and hadn’t grown trees on the farm.”

The Conrads started out with 3 acres, which eventually grew to 9.

Like anything else in farming, raising chestnuts has its ups and downs.

“I call it the ‘challenge of chestnuts,’” Pete says. “When we planted trees on our farm we were fairly certain that we would be OK. We are in the right latitude and the trees have a record of good survivability through the winter, especially with our closeness to Lake Michigan. But I think a better site for these trees would have been where some of the fruit orchard sites are located, with better slopes in the land, to allow better airflow.”

Pete says the orchards can be susceptible to springtime freezing. Even though the trees do not flower until June, the buds are vulnerable. “Last year we got a frost that was just devastating and we had no crop at all.”

Deer and squirrels also present issues in the orchard. Electric fencing keeps the deer out, which resolves most of the animal damage. But, squirrels tend to enjoy the chestnuts as well, though they do not cause as much of a problem.

Pollination has also been a challenge. Chestnut trees are not pollinated by bees, but instead by wind. Some of the trees in the orchard act as pollinators. Pete has discovered over the years that the wind does not always spread the pollen to all the trees. This year, he retrieved pollen from the pollinators and used a blower system. The result has been a high yielding crop.

“This year we have had the most chestnuts I have seen on this farm,” Pete says.

Conrad Farms is part of a cooperative of growers, called Chestnut Growers, Inc., that is made up of over 30 farms from throughout the Lower Peninsula. The coop sells its chestnuts to individual grocers, distribution centers for chain grocery stores, and restaurants.

“It’s been good to part of the coop,” Pete says. “We share a lot of information, such as growing techniques, harvest procedures, and how to keep our trees healthy.”

conrad_chestnuts_2The harvest season is taking place right now. The chestnuts are harvested from the ground. The nuts often fall off the tree, still in their thorny protective casings. A modified pallet, dragged behind an all-terrain vehicle, is used to separate the nuts from the casings. Then, a yard rake is used to move the nuts into a row. Pete says traditional farm equipment can’t be used during harvest because of the damage the heavier tractors can cause.

The chestnuts are picked off the ground by hand. Some people like to use a special rolling tool (see video) that prevents them from being on their knees. Others, chose to pick the chestnuts by hand. Heavy gloves are needed to prevent the thorns from poking the picker. 

History:

The Conrad farm was started in the mid-1880s by John Jacob Conrad, Pete’s great-great grandfather. His great-grandparents, George and Beatrice Conrad, then farmed the land, followed by his grandparents, Archie and Mildred Conrad, and then his parents, Robert and Ann Conrad.

Pete started farming full time in 1986 after he graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science; he is a 1982 graduate of Mason County Central High School. Pete and Connie’s adult children, Kerri and Chris, have assisted with the farm but are not part of the farm operation.

Other Conrad family members also live and farm in the area of the original farmstead as well. 

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