Michael Judd strides among the chestnut trees on the four-hectare (10-acre) swath of land that he manages in Frederick, Maryland. The trees spread above him, the last few nuts dangling from the branches like Christmas ornaments. Covering the ground is a soup of dead leaves, hiding spiky chestnut shells. Judd, 49, a lanky man who wears a different-colored woolen beanie every day, picks one up and demonstrates how easy it is to pop it open and reveal the nutritious morsel inside.

Judd bought this six-decade-old orchard to conduct experiments in service of his grander mission: to help plant 1m nut trees across the US’s mid-Atlantic region, chief among them the chestnut.

For Judd, the chestnut is a solution to environmental and economic problems facing the area. The chestnut is a perennial crop, meaning it doesn’t have to be replanted every year, so it’s a better moneymaker than the annual monocultural agricultural system that dominates so much of the American landscape. It grows easily in a variety of environments, from Maine to Florida. As a source of protein and carbohydrates, the chestnut – nicknamed “the bread tree” – can provide food security for communities.

And they can be a boon for farmers: once chestnut trees mature, they can produce 50 to 100lb of nuts per tree annually, retailing from $3 to $16 per pound. Planting one, Judd said, means “you’ve got a real valuable, storable, nutrient-rich food you can rely on annually”.

Judd, who organizes his efforts through the non-profit SilvoCulture, which he helps to run, is not alone in his enthusiasm for chestnuts. His project is part of a surge of interest among food activists, academics and farmers in using nut trees to replace large-scale forms of agriculture and food sources, which dominate billions of acres of land globally and produce 11% of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Nut trees, on the other hand, are easy to maintain once established and boast all the same benefits as other trees: they sequester carbon, stabilize and retain topsoil, buffer against flooding and other extreme weather events, and provide a habitat for wildlife.

A chestnut
Chestnuts can be eaten whole or made into flours and purees for cooking. Photograph: Christine_Ashburn/Christine Ashburn Photography

“If we were to think about how to radically change agriculture, one of the ways we would do that is to eliminate tillage agriculture by planting trees that do the same function,” said Eliza Greenman, a germplasm specialist at the Savanna Institute, a non-profit that promotes planting trees on farmland in the midwest.

In Wisconsin, hazelnuts are taking off thanks to the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Development Initiative, a non-profit that encourages growers to plant, harvest and sell hazelnuts. Further south, the University of Missouri Extension School is researching best practices for planting and selling black walnuts. And the Savanna Institute urges landowners to consider a variety of perennial nuts – especially the chestnut. The institute recently released a report saying that the “broad adoption of chestnuts could also help ‘flip the script’ on agriculture’s role in climate change”.

When many east coasters hear chestnuts, they might think about the American chestnut, a storied tree that dominated American forests and cityscapes until it was killed off by blight in the 20th century. Four billion trees died in what is often considered one of the worst ecological disasters in modern times. Now, some universities and foundations are attempting to reintroduce a blight-tolerant version of this tree to the American landscape.

But Judd’s project doesn’t share that goal. The American chestnut produces small nuts, he said. His goal is to introduce a hardier, more productive hybrid variety, in the service of feeding people – chestnuts can be eaten whole or made into flours and purees for cooking – and encouraging environmentally stable land usage.

Judd grew up in this western corner of Maryland, but he first became interested in reimagining food systems when he was working on landscape design in rural Nicaragua. There, people ate the food that grew near them. Once he returned to his home state, he started to think about how he and his neighbors would eat if the global supply chain was disrupted, since not many edible crops are grown there.

Some of the 1m trees will be planted in small corners of manicured suburbia on town land, houses of worship and home lawns. He recently planted seven chestnut trees on the grounds of the Islamic Society of Frederick, and 55 in a nature preserve in Myersville. As of earlier this year, SilvoCulture has helped plant 1,660 nut trees, 415 of them chestnuts. These mini-orchards can allow the communities who have historically had little control over their access to food to wrest back some power.

“If you’re a fear-based person, you might say, oil is maxed, prices are going up, the nutrient quality of food is going down, distribution lines are vulnerable. What can I grow to make sure I don’t go hungry?” said Judd, who is also the author of a book on integrating food into suburban landscaping. “When in doubt, plant a nut tree.”

Michael Judd looking at the leaf of a tree
Michael Judd is encouraging farmers to integrate trees into agriculture, a practice called agroforestry. Photograph: Christine_Ashburn/Christine Ashburn Photography

But it’s not always so easy. Greenman, of the Savanna Institute, is also a chestnut farmer: she grows them on her hog farm in Virginia and feeds her animals by putting them out to graze on the nuts. She said Judd’s project would be “truly amazing to see happen”, but added that “it’s certainly ambitious”.

She said that currently, demand is exceeding supply for high-quality chestnut seeds, which could prove challenging for a project that wants to plant them. And she said that in her view, planting a chestnut tree here and there won’t result in the kind of collective change necessary to make a movement: it would be essential for farmers to convert their land to create large-scale orchards.

Judd, who has 1.2 hectares (three acres) of food forest on his own property, is also looking to such large-scale changes. He wants local farmers to consider replanting their fields with nut trees, or integrating trees into agriculture, a practice called agroforestry, which he says sequesters carbon and provides a stable crop in the face of a changing climate.

One local farm that Judd helped transform is Fox Haven in Jefferson, Maryland, which grew organic hay until last year. Dick Bittner manages the 259 hectares (640 acres) of farmland, and several years ago, started doing research on sustainable agriculture and found that chestnut trees can be a financial boon. “We decided I’d try to convert this into something useful,” he said.

Bittner, 86, said he imagines that this landscape will be a lasting benefit for the community even after he’s gone. “For me, being as old as I am, this is something for the people that follow me,” he said. “I can imagine that one day all of these trees will be tall and producing.” He gestures to the bowl of land, where chestnut and hazelnut saplings, ensconced in protective green tree tubes, dot a hill striped with tawny remnants of hay. Judd helped design this so-called edible landscape, which irrigates itself thanks to the natural curvature of the land.

Judd emphasizes that his pitch is not sentimental, but practical. The chestnut has major economic potential: it’s a $5.4bn global industry projected to increase by 2.2% annually over the next five years, according to the Savanna Institute.

“My vision is seeing these barren fields of annual agriculture becoming forested,” he said. “How is that realistically going to happen? Money. It’s got to be good money.”

To make this happen, Judd and his colleagues at SilvoCulture are focused on education. Judd wants to get his pitch in front of as many people as possible. Part of that scheme involves changing the culture.

That’s why this November, SilvoCulture hosted its second annual chestnut roast. At this sold-out event, more than 150 chestnut-curious people listened to speeches about the power of the chestnut and agroforestry. They ate a chestnut-heavy meal served by a local co-op: chicken and chestnut sausage, a squash and chestnut salad, chestnut falafel, chestnut chile and vegan chocolate pudding with chestnuts. Around the fire, Judd’s colleagues cracked chestnuts to prepare them for roasting.

Chestnuts, removed from their spiky shells.
Chestnuts, removed from their spiky shells. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Clarke Lunara, who lives nearby in Louden, said she couldn’t get a ticket to the sold-out event last year. She had never tried a chestnut before, but was pleased by their “nutty but mango-y sweet flavor”.

Cedric Maviou, a friend of Judd’s who lives nearby, said that he wanted to attend because he’s interested both in foraging and in pawpaws, another edible landscape staple. Maviou has planted nut trees with friends, and something that captures his imagination about them is that they require patience – they’re not for those who want instant gratification.

“You need 10 years to get a chestnut,” he said.

That’s the thing about nut trees: they’re an investment in the future, Judd says. He mentioned a grove of pecan trees near his chestnut forest.

Some unknown member of a prior generation planted them, and now, decades later, they’re providing food.

“An effort by one person a long time ago,” Judd said. “It made a huge difference.”


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