COS’ Fourth 5-Star-Rated Michigan Chestnut Orchard
Livingston County, Michigan
Serenity Community Diversity Family Elevation
Perhaps you need no introduction to Chestnut Orchard Solutions 4th 5-Star-Rated Michigan chestnut farm because the LaFever Chestnut Farm is already a legendary chestnut orchard. It may be the most unique chestnut orchard in all of Michigan, maybe the US, and perhaps all of North America. We’re in the northwest corner of Livingston County in Tyrone Township at north latitude 42°44′, and 950 feet above sea level. Again, like our other 5-Star-Rated chestnut farms, the elevation helps the water drain away from the farm, this time to inland lakes Hoisington, Bennett and Lobdall. These lakes take the water from the LaFever chestnut orchard and delivers it to the Shiawassee River which then flows to Saginaw Bay via the Saginaw River. This farm is amazing. Laid out upon 10 acres, the orchard was first established in 1997.
The first chestnut trees, mostly Colossal, were planted with some other cultivars and seedlings by the current owner’s father, Ken LaFever. The orchard has since passed down to Mike, Norma and their son Wade who have improved it. There around 250 trees representing 20-year-old to newly planted trees spread out on 10 acres of land. Each tree is given its rightful place in the orchard spreading without touching the branches of another tree. This gives each tree the chance to produce and drop chestnuts in a complete 360o circumference without interference and shading from other trees. Under these spreading chestnut trees amazing things happen which we will discuss, below.
Trees loaded with burs and nuts continue to mature in September waiting for their grand drop into the hands of an appreciative audience at the LaFever chestnut farm in Fenton. (Click photo to enlarge)
The farm is tucked into the back roads of Fenton, what some people might call the Detroit suburbs, less than 2 miles from US23 and 4.3 million people (the 13th largest metropolitan area in the US). This unique location, which will be hard to copy, combined with the chestnut orchard makes for one of the great chestnut stories in the United States. Every weekend for 6 weekends in September/October, hundreds of people make their way to the LaFever chestnut farm following exits off US23 through dirt roads, wetlands and lakes and finally to the chestnut orchard. Mike says the people who come to gather chestnuts can get their chestnuts at the store, but they come here for the experience. Again, more on this aspect later.
So, why did this farm become our 4th, 5-Star-Rated Michigan Chestnut Orchard for 2018? Well, lets see what hurdles they had to jump through to achieve the coveted 5-Star status set up by the Chestnut Orchard Solutions team.
One ⭐ 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
It is at this farm that I learned a lesson; a lesson I have tried to pass on to you. I was lucky that Mike took the time to show me something important about his farm. His father, Ken, primarily planted the European X Japanese hybrid chestnut cultivar Colossal and any pollinizers he could get his hands on. That was because in 1997 we tried to be like California and plant the pollinizer tree Nevada. But it was too winter sensitive for most of the areas of Michigan, especially 150 miles from the moderating temperatures of Lake Michigan. So Ken planted other chestnuts. Mike noticed that most of the planted trees survived, but he was constantly replanting trees in the middle of his acreage. He says he is stubborn and will continue to do it, but he showed me something that day 4 years ago. He took me to the east boundary of his land where it adjoined his neighbors land which has a higher elevation than Mike’s orchard. He told me, look at this. I cannot keep the Colossal trees alive in a line as it crosses the middle of the property. He said, look, this is the natural drain for my neighbor’s land which crosses my land right here, and on either side of that natural drain, the chestnut trees were dead. Nowhere else on the property, just here where the natural water course keeps the roots wet. It was true, this natural drain went across the farm heading west, where the water went into woodlot and drained to Lake Hoisington to the north of his property. What I remember about that day was observing the dead chestnut trees which appeared to be on opposite shores of this not-so make believe creek that traversed his farm. Other trees were doing well, but if planted on the edge of the drain from the neighbors acrage to the east, they had more than a 50 percent chance of dying. That was in the spring of 2014, after the first of two devastating back-to-back winters. Perhaps if the winter had not been so cold the trees may have pulled through, but for sure, with the second horrible winter of 2014/15 on the heels of the first horrible winter, they probably would have succumbed, anyway. So, that was an important day, because with that information, with the bubbly-bark symptoms Chris Foster was discussing in Oregon and with the help of other growers willing to take the time to think and evaluate the patterns of tree death in their orchards (especially with the help of Pete Ivory in Lapeer), I began to see the outcome of trees planted in areas that were not WELL DRAINED. This was made even more dramatic by the number of successful trees planted on this farm. Today, most of the mature trees are 20-years-old and they are providing a generous income for the owners and becoming an important chestnut venue for southeast Michigan.
Mike checks the winter damage on a chestnut tree in the orchard. Thee amazing chestnut trees can take a lot of weather abuse, but produce wound tissue and keep growing. Water around the roots can promote the early death of the trees.
⭐ Planted pollinizers and placed them up wind from producing cultivars like ‘Colossal’ and ‘Bouche de Betizac’
In 1997, this was not such an important aspect of establishing a chestnut farm. After finding that the Nevada trees would die from a lack of genetic-based winter hardiness, Ken LaFever threw everything he could into the orchard. American chestnut and Chinese chestnut seedlings and grafted trees, including a rare Carolina grafted cultivar from Florida that has surprisingly survived. Now Mike is taking the time to establish other cultivars, mostly on the west side of the orchard so the pollen can blow across the orchard. Also mixed into this farm with its large 20-year-old Colossal trees are newly planted Marigoule, Precoce Migoule, and Labor Day, trees that throw out their pollen and also produce nice nuts.
⭐ Have plans in place for orchard maintenance including, weed control, irrigation as needed, proper tree spacing and tree shape
This eclectic orchard was established with some rows, but very little thought was given to an orchard plan, tree spacing (except for lots of space), with little or no irrigation, weed control or insect control. This is the hallmark of a sustainable chestnut orchard, typical of Europe, right here in southeast Michigan. We do not recommend this orchard management style for other growers starting new orchards. For them, their lack of orchard management, other than good mowing, leads to the most positive and important aspect of this orchard. While not certified organic, it virtually is an organic chestnut farm. The only disease management that is continually done is adding a little biocontrol (hypovirulence) to trees showing chestnut blight cankers. Most of these trees healed their cankers in one or two years and Mike is quick to show one tree that we thought might be saved with treatments, but overall, we really had our doubts. Today, that tree, which some thought should have been cut down, is surviving and producing burs.
Chestnut tree with chestnut blight that would normally be cut down has been treated with a biological control (hypovirulence). This and other trees treated like this continue to grow and produce flowers, burs and nuts.
Mike and son Wade discuss the weevil traps set up under some trees to see if there are any weevil infestations in the orchard. Monitoring for blight and the weevil is part of their orchard management, otherwise, they do not do any spraying.
⭐ Established multiple cultivars to meet the demands of current and future biological and environmental stresses
As we saw above, Mike is smartly planting pollinizers to the west side of the orchard, but he is also planting the pollen-sterile cultivar Bouche de Betizac because it is Asian chestnut gall wasp resistant. If and when this insect makes it to his orchard, the Bouche de Betizac trees will resist infestation and maintain terminal growth, flowering, bur production and yield. If the insect never makes it all the way to Fenton, Bouche de Betizac is still a great cultivar producing an excellent nut.
⭐ Have established unique plans and/or novel ideas for their farm
Mike, Norma and Wade discuss in front of me where the idea originated for the most important and unique aspect of this farm-‑U PICK CHESTNUTS. It was a brilliant idea–an act of genius. 2.5 to 3 tons of chestnuts falling from roughly 100 trees spread out across a 10-acre lawn. “If you ‘plant it’ they will come,” comes to mind. But it didn’t happen that way. A fortuitously-timed article in a midwest-based Japanese newspaper by a respected Japanese journalist alerted the Japanese community in the region to this farm. Today, 80 percent of the people that come to pick the chestnuts are of Asian descent, but recently the LaFevers have noticed a shift to eastern Europeans as well as those with ties to the middle east and Asia Minor. These people come by car and bus from communities all over Michigan and even further. Mike makes the observation that they don’t all come just for the chestnuts, they come for the the serenity. The green grass, the well spaced trees, and the ability to cook on open fires. They come to prepare and eat ethnic dishes and roast chestnuts. Some people come back each year, staking claim to certain trees where they know there are always good tasting chestnuts. Some want large sized chestnuts that have a characteristic look. And for those chestnuts that are difficult to peel having just fallen from the trees, Mike tells them to apply more heat to make peeling easier.
Mike, Norma and Wade did not start out as experts in chestnut cultivation, but they have learned so much by listening to his dad, attending meetings, and caring for the trees. This orchard has become a destination farm in a busy part of the state. The farm and trees provide serenity and nourishing food that take people back in time, back to foods of their native cultures. The LaFevers are hardly a farm family, they are more like hosts providing a weekend remedy to those seeking foods that remind them of home. Families and friends, restaurateurs, and store owners can be found on October weekends at the LaFever chestnut farm gathering chestnuts, eating foods of their homeland and having memorable time in Fenton.
We remember Ken for allowing us to do experiments in his orchard. Ken was always ready to discuss each and every tree; its strengths and weaknesses. Ken was open-minded and took the time to think about the conversation and continue the conversation weeks later when we were visiting him again. By studying his farm, we learned a lot about the microbiology of the chestnut. We also started our pollination biology in this orchard and studied the genetics of the trees. Thanks Ken for the legacy you gave to your family and to each of us.
About the growers: Mike LaFever is a barber at the Korner Barbers in Farmington, Norma is a retired greenhouse manager, and Wade is a chef at the Local Post restaurant in Cincinnati, OH