COS’ Third 5-Star-Rated Michigan Chestnut Farm
Jackson County, Michigan
15.3 acres Elevation:1000 feet Chestnut & Hay
Alan Brent and his family farm, Brent’s Chestnut Acres in Napoleon Township, Jackson County is seemingly centered in the middle of Michigan’s southern lower peninsula. Whereas, our first 5-Star-Rated orchard, Nick and Abby Johnson’s Ox Heights Farm is above the 45th parallel, halfway to the North pole, and our second 5-Star-Rated orchard, Chuck Jones’ Silver Creek Township orchard is south of Jackson County, Brent’s chestnut farm is at 42°10′ north latitude.
Dr. Chuck Jones’ orchard near Dowagiac is a long 25 miles from Lake Michigan and here Brent’s Chestnut Acres farm is more than 100 miles from the moderating effects of Lake Michigan–basically no moderation. In fact, the farm is closer to Lake Erie than Lake Michigan. When in the northern latitudes such as 41-45 and far from a moderating source of water like Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, extreme winter cold can kill trees. It is important to find those that can handle the low winter temperatures. But, water, too much water, can dish out more destruction to chestnut trees than winter. Therefore, one special fact that might not be noticed when you are in Jackson County is the elevation–it’s relatively high. The average elevation is 970 feet and and Alan Brent’s farm is at 1,005 feet. The watershed on his farm feeds Stoney Lake, a lake about 1-mile south. Jackson County, where the MSU Rogers Reserve Endowed Research Farm is located, is the origin of two of Michigan’s largest rivers, the Grand River and the Kalamazoo River. Both of these waterways eventually whisk away Jackson County water to Lake Michigan. On the very southeast corner of Jackson County, River Raisin helps drain Jackson County to Lake Erie. The water shed of Napoleon Township drains mostly into the Grand River, Michigan’s longest river which drains into Lake Michigan after a long meandering trip north and west. The Portage River drains lands from 3 counties and in Jackson County the Portage River drains lands from 5 townships, channeling the water to the Grand River. At a 1000 foot elevation, the water is always fleeing to the lower elevations of Lakes Michigan and Erie and eventually out to the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, Brent’s chestnut acres and Ox Heights Farm near Rogers City both have elevation in common. Both Nick and Abby Johnson and Alan Brent grow chestnuts above 900 feet. ( Click on photos to enlarge.)Above, photo of Brent’s Chestnut Acres in early May 2016,. COS met at Brent’s Chestnut Acres to tour the new planting. These Forrest Keeling Nursery grafted trees were beginning their second season after fall planting in 2014. Below, this same field in August 2018. The trees, in their 4th season have burs and are growing with vigor. Click on photos to enlarge.
We focus on water, because chestnuts require well drained soils and Jackson County is the “home court” of water in Michigan with its artesian wells, wet lands, lakes and sources of rivers. In fact, Alan Brent points out that he has a spring in the front 3 acres. Lucky for him that it is at the lower end of a long slope and that water does not impact most of the front orchard. When he planted too close to the wetland, only the carcasses of trees are found.
Top photo, the rows of trees stop short as they come down the slope approaching the wet area in the 3 front acres of Alan Brent’s chestnut farm. In the lower photo, a spring (background) keeps the area damp. This water kills trees as shown in the foreground with the missing trees.
Overall, the farm looks terrific and it’s laid out well. But let’s run the numbers to see how well he measures up to the five COS-established criteria to be considered a 5-Star-Rated Michigan chestnut farm.
⭐ 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
Two important points here. First, this is the land and farm on which Alan Brent grew up. He knows this land and its water courses. Second, his parents planted and grew a few Chinese chestnut seedling trees on the farm–so knew chestnut would grow well on the land. He is now grafting those large Chinese trees over to European X Japanese cultivars. Yes, there could be some incompatibility issues when grafting a Chinese chestnut tree to a European X Japanese hybrid cultivar, but good grafters can do it and it will eliminate the potential of IKB in the orchard as IKB is caused by pollen from Chinese trees pollinizing his European X Japanese hybrid orchard. He has had no issues with frost since he started planting in 2014. He stays away from wet areas. He has been studying other parcels of land in his vicinity and will begin to plant a new 20-acre orchard in a couple of years. By-the-way, there were 11 Dunstan Hybrid seedling chestnut trees planted on his farm that he says never did much. They are gone now.
⭐ 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. Almost all of the acres in this location are planted now and what isn’t planted will be filled with this year’s Forrest Keeling Nursery shipment. However, his closest call with chestnut disaster came in 2014 when he ordered cultivars from an unnamed western US nursery for spring planting. I know some growers are looking for changes in the planting time, but Alan lost more than 70% of those spring-planted trees, meaning the death of 150 out of 214 grafted trees. Most died in the first year and the rest a year or two later. The Forrest Keeling Nursery fall planted trees representing the same cultivars were fine that year and have done well for Alan. So far, there have been no miscues with Forrest Keeling Nursery trees, including the planting of fall 2017 where close to 100% of the trees survived except a few where an irrigation line failed to deliver water. Generally, he doesn’t even count the trees. He tells us to look at the trees and that they’re growing just fine. There’s no problems here. Of those 214 unnamed western US nursery trees, only about 65 are are still alive and they too are growing fine. Spring planted–Western Nursery, not necessarily the panacea some think it will be. The majority of those small trees that died were pollinizers and so he had to replace the pollinizer trees in 2016 with Forrest Keeling Nursery trees and they too are doing fine, 100 miles to the east of Lake Michigan at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
In he photo below, the difference in height of the first tree in the row and tree next to it was due to the the spring planting tree death. The tree to the left survived the spring planting in 2014, but the next to it (right) is a replacement from Forrest Keeling Nursery planted fall 2016. In other words, the tree at the end of the row is 2.5 seasons older than the tree to the right.
⭐ Have plans in place for orchard maintenance including, weed control, irrigation as needed, proper tree spacing and tree shape
Asked where he gets most of his information, he says the MSU chestnut website and he doesn’t deny a quick drive over to Rogers Reserve for a talk with Mario. Drip irrigation and deer cages are in place. He wants to set up a deer fence as he says the cages are obstacles to caring for the trees. He has a well and he uses fertigation for fertilizing like Chuck Jones at Silver Creek Township Chestnut Farm. Herbicides are used when needed; however Round Up just didn’t stop much this year and he wisely didn’t want to take a chance with Round Up once the leaves of the trees broke bud. He interplants the rows to alfalfa. The alfalfa is doing well and coming back after the dry summer. Making turns with the hay cutter in his orchard is a bit challenging. He says one mistake he did make was to over prune the young trees. Some are just now coming out of it. During a survey of his young orchard, he found a chestnut blight canker on a very young tree. He took out that tree and burned it so it would not contribute spores to the rest of the trees in the orchard. Everyone needs to survey and this is a great example of why.
⭐ Established multiple cultivars to meet the demands of current and future biological and environmental stresses
Since he is in the Asian chestnut gall wasp corridor, he has planted ‘Bouche de Betizac’ which is established in orchards for its resistance to Asian chestnut gall wasp. ‘Labor Day’, a Japanese chestnut cultivar, is planted in the pollinizer rows and will pollinize the male sterile trees (‘Colossal’ and ‘Bouche de Betizac’). ‘Labor Day’ is completely blight resistant and an early season producer of chestnuts. Besides ‘Colossal’, ‘Bouche de Betizac’ and ‘Labor Day’, Alan has planted many of the European X Japanese cultivars available through Forrest Keeling Nursery: ‘Precoce Migoule’ because this produces copious pollen and good nuts early in the season like ‘Labor Day’ as well as ‘Marigoule’, ‘Marsol’ and ‘Maraval’ because these have either tolerance or resistance to chestnut blight. All of these European X Japanese cultivars serve as pollinizers to each other and to the male sterile cultivars (‘Colossal’ and ‘Bouche de Betizac’) in his orchard. With so much diversity of cultivars, some growers worry about the time of maturation of the nuts of some of these cultivars. This is not a problem for people who grow chestnuts at the 41-43 parallel. All nuts on all cultivars will be out of the bur and into storage well before a hard frost.
⭐ Have established unique plans and/or novel ideas for their farmBetween rows,
Alan has planted hay and has plans to do the same in his new planting about 2 miles away. Working with government officials he usually finds programs that align with his professional and personal goals. Another example, Brent’s Chestnut Orchard is now MAEAP certified. The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program is a voluntary program that helps farms of all sizes and all commodities voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. MAEAP verified farms represent the agricultural community’s commitment to a sustainable environment. The land that Alan grew up on will be protected from pollution providing one of the best gifts of all to his own children as they grow up on the chestnut farm.
Brent’s Chestnut Acres is an important farm for COS and for Michigan. He had one planting problem when changing nurseries and planting times and he is now back to Forrest Keeling Nursery chestnuts. During those stressful times, he allowed COS to tour the farm and show the growers what had happened.
To maintain his success he followed recommendations on the MSU website. He sought information from experts. He joined government programs that will add value to his land for decades and he is looking forward to his first large crop. He is currently in that time when the trees are getting older and larger and producing more flowers each year. The pollen will fly farther and the receptive female flowers will delight in their capture of the pollen over the next decades. Last year, with only first, second and third season trees he was able to harvest about 250 pounds. This farm is well suited for the 5-Star-Rating it has earned. Congratulations, Alan and family!