American chestnuts (Castanea dentata), once prominent in the eastern U.S. landscape, all but disappeared in the mid-1900s when chestnut blight eradicated nearly all of these popular trees. Blight resistant varieties of Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) are a viable alternative for commercial chestnut production. Chestnuts are low in fat compared with other nuts and are receiving attention from the health food industry. These nuts are eaten roasted, boiled, sautéed, and a few varieties (such as Qing) are consumed fresh. Chestnuts may be incorporated into various recipes, such as stuffing, vegetable dishes, casseroles, and desserts. Dried chestnuts can be ground into flour as a substitute for wheat flour or corn meal.
The most promising outlets for chestnuts include the domestic fresh (roasting) markets, upscale restaurants, and ethnic/specialty food groceries. Chestnuts can also be used to make gluten-free chestnut flour for sale as a specialty food. Specific fresh chestnut markets include restaurants, roadside stands, on-farm markets, farmers markets, retail groceries, and specialty food retailers. A 2005 University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry survey of U.S. chestnut growers indicated that producers received the highest prices when marketing their chestnuts into the fine dining sector. While local sales are most common, many chestnut growers have also advertised their product online, selling beyond a 75-mile radius of their farm. Chestnuts are often considered a holiday food item, so growers could take advantage of this potential market by timing sales accordingly. Proper post-harvest handling, including cold storage and marketing the chestnuts from refrigerated containers at retail, is essential for maintaining post-harvest quality.
Chestnut trees may be established from seeds, seedlings, or grafted trees. Planting grafted trees is preferred for consistency in yield, ripening, size, and quality of the nuts produced. While seedling trees are generally more readily available and less expensive to purchase, grafted trees come into bearing sooner than seedlings. Graft incompatibility can occur several years after planting. There are a number of Chinese chestnut cultivars and hybrids that are well adapted to Kentucky conditions. Nut characteristics, such as size, flavor, cracking quality, and storage life can vary among varieties. It is particularly important to choose selections resistant to chestnut blight, and cultivars that produce the largest nuts such as Qing. Most markets require large chestnuts. Chinese chestnuts are self-sterile, so two or more different cultivars are required for good pollination.