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Dreaming up a chestnut, hickory, oak system  RSS feed

Matthew Hugo
Posts: 3
Location: North Carolina Piedmont
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Hi all,

I'm obsessed with nuts. I'm from the Southeast and I dream of harvesting nuts from abundant chestnuts, hickories, oaks, hazelnuts, and native fruit trees (pawpaws and persimmons). However everytime I try and think about the specifics of implementing/managing such a system (especially on the site I have in mind) my head starts spinning. I thought maybe someone here has some ideas or would like to dream with me I don't own or manage any land, but for a project I'm designing this sytem on a site that I've spent some time on. It's in mountainous western NC at about 2000 ft. and gets about 40-45" of rain. The slopes are intense (15-30 deg.), the soil is thin (past clearcutting left just a couple feet of soil over shale and conglomerate), however what is there is of a nice texture. This is all theoretical so I'm not concerned with getting it perfect. Here's a topo map of the site and some of my goals (The yellow lines are the property boundary (property is shaped like a boot). It's about 30 acres, and that creek at the bottom runs all year, and it gets quite shady down there due to a ridge to the south.)

1. Harvest enough chestnuts, acorns, hazelnuts, hickory nuts to eat myself, share, sell some and earn some cash. Not necessarily cash crop scale, but a nice chunk of change.
2. Graze animals below the trees. Not sure what animals work best, but I would love to get benefits of understory control for ease of nut harvest. Stocking density doesn't have to be production scale, more like ecological-benefits scale.
3. Use fire as a management system in the fall or early spring, much like native cultures often have in oak/hickory/chestnut forests to clear understory and reduce pest pressure like acorn weevils.

Now I'm not totally crazy. Even though I harvest and enjoy acorns and hickories every year, I realize the market potential is lacking to say the least. Part of a good design would include plans to develop those markets locally or look into shipping to cities that have large populations of people whose ethnic cuisine includes acorns (looking at you Korea). Nut crops are also heavy N-feeders. My idea is growing productive N-fixers and using chop-and-drop, or something like that. Autumn olive comes to mind. I'm very open to other ideas. The biggest problem I'm having is thinking up a way to develop the degraded topsoil, and stop more from eroding. What are the pros and cons of creating berms and swales on such a steep site with little topsoil to begin with? I'm worried about the logistics of getting heavy machinery up to this spot, and the compaction of the soil from the machines themselves. And if there's only a little soil to start with the berms or terraces would have to be tiny unless we brought in soil. And then the trees themselves. There's been a little work on breeding annual-bearing oaks (to avoid the mast cycle, which would make production hard) but I'd love to hear if anyone else has thought about this. Pecan-hickory hybrids are also super interesting to me (tastier nuts like shagbark hickory, but easier cracking and more annual-bearing like pecans).

There's a lot here to chew on and I'd love to hear if this makes anyone else excited! Or if there's some super big problem I'm missing feel free to tell me.
William James
Posts: 1023
Location: Northern Italy
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Anything above 18% slope is going to be very difficult to work with. Just so you know.
Work is harder, design must be more exact, takes more $ (machinery).

source: notes from geoff lawton course.

My own opinion: above 18% you might want to think about calling it zone 5 and just let it grow into forest.

Marco Banks
Posts: 611
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Ditto on the comment about the slope being unworkable.  Even if you are planning on harvesting by hand, that's impossibly steep to do any sort of volume.  If you were able to get earth moving equipment up on that slope, you might be able to cut swales into the side of the hill and then plant your trees below the swales.  You'd be able to drive an ATV along your swale and pick nuts along the level pathway at the bottom of the swale as the trees grow up and over it.  Are you willing to make such an investment?  By the time you add up the cost of earth moving equipment and all the years it will take before you see a harvest (however minimal), it would seem to be a whole lot more efficient to just buy a better piece of land.

If it were me, I'd plant it out by hand over the next year or two.  With a spade, make small fish-scale swales and plant your trees in these.  In 5 years, the trees should be big enough that you could start to run your stock (a couple of hogs) through the forest, but limit how long you'll leave them on the land.  Too long, and they'll tear it all up.  If you do run a few animals through your system, you won't need to use fire.  Sheep will eat poison ivy, kudzu or any other invasives: no need to burn all the wonderful biomass and fungi feeding leaf-litter.  But, again, you'll need to protect the trees until they are well established, or their little teeth with start nibbling on the bark of your baby trees.

I would imagine that there are squirrels in your area.  Once you get a few parent trees established, they'll plant hundreds more for you, but you'll need to be patient.  Like, 30 years, patient.

Start small.  Start on the flattest part of the land and plant 100 trees.  Next year, 100 more.

Create fish scale swales:

If you do one fish-scale swale a day, you'll have hundreds of them in a couple of years.

Oak trees are tough.  With a pointed stick and a big bag of acorns, I'd get out there an plant a 1000 of them in late winter when the ground begins to thaw.  I'll bet that you'll get 25% germination and 10% survival rate.  100 trees for one day's work --- not a bad return.  Just poke a hole in the ground with the stick, drop in an acorn, and push the soil over it.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Bryant RedHawk
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Posts: 3133
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Matthew  Interesting piece of land but actually great for what you say you want to do with it.
terraces are perfect for this plot, swales and berms not so much but combine the two into a complete water retention system and it would be a winner.
Soil is built by bacteria and fungi in nature, these will be key for the soil improvement you want, along with clovers and cereal grains you can have a harvest and build soil at the same time.
The earth works will need to be done first.
When you want to make money with nuts it is all about tons per acre with as little work as possible so the profit margin can be decent.

I invite you to learn about the setup you want to do from Mark Shepard at C.E.E.D. Ecolonomic Action Team 

Mark has an entire Restoration Agriculture course on this site, his own farm is about growing chestnuts along with grazing both cows and hogs under and around the trees, along with alleys of vegetables for produce, all without a lot of work.

As far as markets go, you will be selling wholesale and that means you need to locate the local brokers.  I think you will find the information Mark is presenting exactly what you want and need.

Each sesson is around 1 hour long and so far there are 23 sessions as well as many other presentations on this type of management system. 
There is a Free option as well as a several pay type options for you to choose from.
I recommend the free one so you can decide wisely on whether or not to choose another option.

Ray Moses
Posts: 116
Location: Brighton, Michigan
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I'm nuts about nuts also and my hats off to you for thinking about it. I think the market potential is actually huge for all of those nuts you write about but the ability to bring marketable nuts to market is the huge road block. Commercial chestnut production is being done successfully here in the east, especially in my home state of Michigan. Hazels in the east are getting close to becoming of commercial quality but for now are not really there yet. I saw some hickoriy nuts  from grafted trees and they were amazing how huge they were, never got to see them cracked out, but in my area wild hickories like shagbark are the best for taste of any nut but very sporadic nut producers  and many trees just never produce viable nuts at all and the ones that do just have too low of percent kernel crack to ever be able to make money on. Grated hickories are expensive to buy and seedling trees may take 15 to 20 years to get going. You mention oaks and to me that is a good crop to look at. I noticed with the white oak group in my area you really need to come up with a way to guard your crop from deer, this year we had a bumper crop of acorns from the white and burr oaks and I thought I would get hundreds of bushels but the deer came in with a vengeance and any area that was not in very short grass made it difficult to harvest. Any marketable crop needs to be able to be harvest in high volume at a fast rate. I have been able to start a black walnut processing business, if you get the other stuff going let me know.
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