Chestnuts may be big business for local growers

If you knew Steve Nottingham you wouldn't be surprised to see him open a beer on a weekday morning and take a quick sip of his homemade concoction for quality control.

He poured two varieties of his experimental beverage and asked his colleagues to drink from the plastic cup that contained the summer ale.

"This is much better than the last one we had," said Jenny Franklin, after tasting Nottingham's latest brew, made from chestnuts.

Chestnut beer? Yup.

It's one of the commodities Nottingham, Franklin and other area chestnut growers, organized under the cooperative USA Chestnut Inc., want to market. They currently sell unprocessed chestnuts to retailers, such as Whole Foods, but they are also developing new items such as chestnut stuffing, chestnut flour and chestnut syrup.

"We're getting so close, I can smell the baking," said Franklin, whose High Springs Orchard is also home to a test kitchen.

Joel Kersey, president of the cooperative, has partnered with University of Florida IFAS researchers to finish the development of a chestnut peeler that will cost about $25,000. The cost of an Italian peeler on the market is $230,000, Kersey said.

"It's so simple, it's just amazing," Kersey said of the machine. "I don't even feel like I can brag about it."

Or talk about it.

Kersey won't give details about this and other inventions in the development stage, for proprietary reasons, he said.

USA Chestnut, which is 2 years old, is one of a growing number of cooperatives, nonprofits and other farming ventures in Florida that exist outside the traditional family farm model, said Allen Wysocki, a UF professor of agricultural economics.

"It was kind of waning for a while, but I think it's on the rise," Wysocki said of growers organized in cooperatives.

Although the USDA reports a decline in the number of U.S. cooperatives established in the last decade, Wysocki says back-to-local movements are fostering a renewed interest from potential growers and farmers, as well as from corporations that want to purchase more locally grown items from these groups.

One problem, says Wysocki, is that companies don't always have the ability to connect to local growers, which is why he is building an online presence for Florida growers on a Facebook-esque Web site on which farmers can sell their crops.

Market Maker is a Web community established by the University of Illinois in consortium with land grant universities and the state departments of agriculture that allows growers to connect with retail markets.

Thus far, more than a dozen states have growers and retailers interacting through Market Maker, and experts then help to vet the quality of the crops.

Despite these new marketing tools, co-op members still have difficulty securing startup capital, especially as financial institutions are not extending credit easily, Kersey said.

"It's probably easier for an individual to use their farm for collateral," he said of a typical family farm.

USA Chestnut Inc. consists of 10 growers who cultivate 110 acres of chestnut trees between Florida and Georgia, and they produced 23,000 pounds of chestnuts in 2008.

They pay annual dues of $50 each, which covers the expense of marketing materials but cannot pay for larger projects, such as Kersey's peeler machine, which he funds himself. A majority of the co-op members are employed outside agriculture and grow chestnuts as a part-time activity.

Chestnut trees were once commonplace in North America until a diseased Asian variety was introduced to the country in the early 20th century, destroying most of the native stock. The Chinese blight fungus is still cause for concern for growers and scientists who cultivate hybrid varieties to become disease-resistant. Most of the chestnuts now consumed in the United States are imported from Italy and China.

Wysocki says there's opportunity to expand this market at home.

"If co-ops can stay current with what the trends are and can find those ways to meet customers' needs, then they're going to find success," he said.