Ox Heights Farm, COS 5-Star Orchard, N45.41˚ 940 feet –9˚F 99% Tree survival

Chestnut Orchard Solutions

First 5 star-Rated Michigan Chestnut Farm

Latitude:  N45.41˚    Altitude: 940ft      Low temp: -9˚F          2017 tree planting survival:   99% Fall 

You’re looking at amazing numbers–surprisingly fascinating numbers.  But if you knew this farm family you wouldn’t be surprised at all. The Johnson’s live and have planted a chestnut orchard farther north in Michigan than anyone I know. They know these numbers because they studied them, they depend on them, they live them, and they even eat them.  The motto “Up North in Michigan” is taken to its full meaning at this farm.   Ox Heights Farm in Moltke Township, Presque Isle County just outside Rogers City is owned and operated by Nickolas and Abby Johnson and their 5 children ages 3- months to 8-years-old. But chestnuts, while an important aspect to the farm’s goals is not the only focus.  Timber management, oxen for sustainable timber harvest and goats, for milk and cheese are the most important aspects of the current farm. But chestnuts may be playing a much bigger role someday.Brooke held by her dad Nick, and Abby holding Silvan stand in front of one of 9 trees planted in 2016. The other 450 trees were planted in 2017 and so far, 99 percent of the trees have survived. Yes, it’s named Ox Heights Farm for a reason.  Abby grew up with oxen in mid-Michigan and here in Moltke they help harvest timber.

To be a 5-Star Michigan chestnut farm, we have imposed 5 criteria that need to be met.  Let’s see how Ox Heights and the Johnson’s measure up and why we believe they are worth everyone of the 5 stars.

One Star for Each of the Orchard’s Superior Qualities

⭐      Studied their planting sites well in advance to select the best soils and slopes for frost and water drainage

Knowing that Presque Isle County (Rogers City) is way out of the normal range for the establishment of an orchard and that the trees need well drained, sandy soil, the Johnsons found land with the highest elevation in the area.  A ridge running through Moltke township has an elevation of over 900 feet.  It’s known as the Moltke Ridge and they used that ridge and the slopes from the ridge to provide drainage of water, frost and cold away from the orchard.  Their monitoring of temperatures in prior years proved useful.  This past winter the coldest temperature at 950 feet, the highest point in the orchard, was –9F.  Down slope at the bottom of the orchard (900 feet) the temperature was –15F.  At 800 feet on another nearby farm the lowest temperature was recorded at –19F.  Of the 450 trees planted on 7 acres in the fall of 2017, only four trees have died as of July 10th.

Standing near the top of the highest point on the farm 950 feet above sea level.  Down below, 900 feet above sea level.  

Abby standing in a row of European x Japanese hybrid cultivars. Each tree has been coded with a bronze badge indicating its row and column. 

⭐     Planted pollinizers and placed them up wind from producing cultivars like ‘Colossal’ and ‘Bouche de Betizac’

All of the regular European x Japanese cultivars produced by Forrest Keeling Nursery are present.  Long rows of ‘Colossal’ and ‘Bouche de Betizac’ are divided by rows of mixed pollinizers.   An interesting phenomenon is occurring this summer in that winds are out of east. That is interesting because there is no eastern row of pollinizers, so it will be interesting to see how well pollination takes place in those eastern rows of ‘Colossal’ and ‘Bouche de Betizac’.

⭐      Have plans in place for orchard maintenance including, weed control, irrigation as needed, proper tree spacing and tree shape

Drip irrigation, mouse guards, white latex paint, deer cages and weed barriers are in place.  They are thinking about using the 3D electric fence which allows better access to the trees. Herbicides are used when needed.  The trees are planted 20 X 30 feet which for the shorter growing season and the upright growth of all new cultivars other than ‘Colossal’ should allow years of production before trees begin shading each other.

Deer cage, weed mat (Tree Pro plastic mat, black), irrigation line , and white paint.  Mouse guards are seen attached to the deer  cage here and in other photos.

Soil under the mat is wet as it will hold slightly when making a fist; however in the photo below you can see the soil away from the mat. It is dry and will not hold together. 

⭐      Established multiple cultivars to meet the demands of current and future biological and environmental stresses

‘Colossal’ was planted for high yields and ‘Bouche de Betizac’ was planted for resistance to Asian chestnut gall wasp.  These male sterile trees will be pollinized by ‘Labor Day’, a Japanese chestnut, is blight resistant and an an early season producer of chestnuts; ‘Precoce Migoule’ a European x Japanese pollinizer also produces an early nut; ‘Marigoule’, a European x Japanese pollinizer chestnut with chestnut blight tolerance, also has shown winter hardiness in Michigan;  ‘Marsol’ also a European x Japanese pollinizer with chestnut blight resistance; and ‘Maraval’, an aggressive European x Japanese cultivar, tolerant to chestnut blight, but production may be too late to take to market in years with an early fall frost.  We’ll see.

Different cultivars in different rows.  ‘Colossal’  and ‘Bouche de Betizac’ will be pollinated by ‘Precoce Migoule’, ‘Marigoule’, ‘Marsol’ and ‘Maraval’.   ‘Labor Day’ will also be a pollinating tree, but its other role is to drop nuts early. 


⭐     Have established unique plans and/or novel ideas for their farm

Between rows of chestnut cultivars, they have planted clover and have cut and harvested that for hay to feed their oxen and cattle at another farm.  Establishing this chestnut orchard on the “wrong” side of the state and in an area “too far north” provides an opportunity to show what chestnut orchards might be able to do for the state’s agriculture in expanding orchards in areas not traditionally considered for fruit orchards.  However, we need to find areas conducive to the survival of the trees.  Also, we need about 12 more years to make any claims that chestnuts can grow and succeed in these non-traditional areas.

Nickolas and Abby have successfully intercropped with clover. Many growers talk about doing it, but they have successfully harvested and fed their oxen and another farms cattle. Mowing the hay. 

Raking the hay between the rows of trees.  A very tight fit, but pure genius .

The Johnson’s have great vision and put it to use in finding the proper location for their orchard.  We are happy that it seems the trees, after the mild fall, the cold and snowy winter, wet spring and dry summer are doing well.  That same vision was used in choosing to start a chestnut orchard in a non-traditional orchard area.  Maybe this won’t amount to much, but it might, and the Johnson’s should get all the credit.  Many miles of ridges are available in northern regions.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

All of these visions, ideas and tests were laid out in a grant proposal submitted to and funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Farmer Rancher Grant Program.    Lucky for all of us that it was funded.  Please note that—

Ox Heights Farm will have an open house on Saturday, September 15, 2018. More information will be available for this farm and orchard tour at a later date.

After the orchard and farm tour I was invited for dinner.  We shared venison from the farm, potatoes, delicious goat cheese and a tall glass of goat milk.  I hope they are able to add chestnuts to the menu next year.

After dinner I was serenaded by Fenlynn (8) who played a chestnut song on the piano with her original lyrics.  It was a fitting end to a perfect day Up North in Michigan.The name of this new song is “Welcome to Our Chestnut Farm” by Fenlynn Johnson.

Below, Fenlynn and Bjorn (6) and the other children will grow up playing in the chestnut orchard. 

Background of the growers:  Abby and Nick were educated in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.  Abby earned her B.S. in Biosystems Engineering during 2009. During the evenings, she serves as the Director of the Presque Isle County Conservation District.  Nick earned his B.S. in Biology and Fisheries Management and works a fulltime job as a fish biologist to help support the farm.  During the evenings, he serves as an advisor for the Michigan Forestry Assistance Program.