Product development future of chestnuts
Value-added processing is likely to be the future of the chestnut industry in New Zealand, according to chestnut guru and former Ruakura plant scientist Dr David Klinac.
Commercial chestnuts in New Zealand got off to a great start in the 1980s, at the same time as many other ‘alternative’ horticultural crops, as the government urged Kiwi agriculture to diversify.
Chestnut pioneer Murray Kestle established Top Nut at Gordonton near Hamilton with a spread of around 1,000 trees, a packhouse, coolstore and retail outlet. An engineer, he developed innovative machines to make the work of gathering and processing chestnuts easier. The New Zealand Chestnut Council was formed to act as a national growers’ group and promote chestnut growing in New Zealand, and with it a commercial arm, Chestnut Exports NZ Ltd.
All was going gangbusters until the late 1990s when Kestle sold out to a group of investors. Several years later the enterprise folded.Today, what was his Gordonton packing shed is utilised on a casual basis by members of the Waikato chestnut growing community, and the former Kestle property has been cleared of all but a few of its trees. Once the focus of 300 growers, the chestnut industry is now comprised of about 100 growers of whom about 50 actively market their products further than the farm gate or the local farmers’ market.
David Klinac describes commercial chestnut production in New Zealand as a story of enterprise, ingenuity and promise mixed in equal quantities with frustration.
“When Top Nut collapsed it took a lot of gear, expertise, and money out of the industry. All the machinery was sold off around New Zealand. It burnt a lot of growers. Still today there is no factory. Overseas buyers want quality. We could sell New Zealand’s entire production ten times over into Japan, but no growers have their own packhouses.”
The chestnut is a species of deciduous tree native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere and chestnuts have been popular for human and animal consumption for thousands of years. Chestnuts are gluten-free, low in fat, and have more vitamin C than citrus, which means they can be used in a number of dietary and health products.
Given a free-draining soil, New Zealand grows chestnuts like mad. Advantages include the absence of diseases which hamper growers overseas, which means chestnuts can be grown in New Zealand spray-free.While chestnuts are only a minor part of the traditional Kiwi diet, they are popular with the growing Asian population and this demand is providing new impetus to the market.
Understanding the problems the New Zealand chestnut industry faces requires understanding the chestnut itself. The chestnut is made up of a prickly outer husk or ‘burr’, the redbrown shell, a thin brown papery membrane or ‘pellicle’ and the nut itself, which is actually a seed.
The predominant New Zealand chestnut is a hybrid of European and Japanese varieties – Castanea Sativa the Spanish or ‘sweet’ chestnut and the Japanese Castanea Crenata. There are several hybrids found only in New Zealand often referred to by their cultivar numbers.
The Kiwi chestnut grows and crops well, but as David Klinac explains, the industry has difficulties with processing and is hampered by labour costs, lack of a single-desk seller – as greatly benefits other areas of primary production – lack of investment in infrastructure and lack of an overall marketing plan.
Whole nut export is ongoing, but chestnuts are tricky things to handle and prone to rot and fungal contamination. What would seem to be a southern hemisphere advantage – supplying northern hemisphere markets out of season – has not turned out to be so, as traditional Asian and European consumers want fresh chestnuts in their chestnut season.
Predominant markets are Japan, Taiwan, Korea and other Asian nations. The United States is potentially a large market as its indigenous species of chestnut tree has been wiped out
by introduced blight – and chestnuts are an essential ingredient in stuffing for the traditional Thanksgiving turkey.
More recently the emphasis has moved from selling chestnuts as a bulk commodity to the creation of a range of products which have the potential to greatly increase returns: Bulk nuts sell for around $3 a kilo, David explains, while value-added processed products including chestnut crumb, flours, soup, purée, liqueur, beer, stuffing, crackers and a range of animal food supplements can sell for up to $30 a kilo. Or as individual sweets given as gifts they can sell for $3 to $4 per nut.
“There is great potential for a wide range of value-added processed chestnut products to be made in New Zealand, especially those made with unique New Zealand-developed technology which is found nowhere else in the world, combined with our equally unique chestnut cultivars.These can be used to make a variety of new and novel ‘non-traditional’ chestnut ingredients, products and applications not widely available elsewhere.”
However, chestnut processing is relatively new to New Zealand and most of the initiatives are still small scale but it is hoped they will expand, David says.
Due to the risk of introducing new diseases, bringing new varieties into the country is difficult. Unfortunately the hybrid European – Japanese varieties that make up the large majority of New Zealand’s chestnut trees have a nut that is (as David describes it) “a bugger to peel.”
“The big Asian markets like the nut nice and clean – without its pellicle. That’s what they are used to and the local Japanese – Chinese varieties are easy to peel. In the northern hemisphere, the task of shelling the chestnut and removing the pellicle is traditionally done by hand but this is time-consuming – so no good in a high labour cost nation like New Zealand.”
This problem is being overcome with the development of products that incorporate the pellicle including wholemeal flours and animal feed supplements. This has also led to the development of a couple of specific machines: One machine turns whole chestnuts into ‘crumb’ which is then further refined into flour. It also separates the shells which are turned into animal health supplements including a deworming treatment for alpacas. Another separates whole nuts from their shells.
Gordonton grower and retired architect Godfrey Larsen and wife Jackie bought their chestnut farm 12 years ago. It had already been planted in about 500 trees of the 1002, 1005 and 1015 cultivars.
The Larsens rely on the pick-your-own market and sell about 5 tonnes of nuts a year, mostly to Asian customers and a few eastern Europeans.
“We can see the potential in the industry, but we see ourselves as growers and we don’t want the expense of installing a food-grade kitchen. It’s a chicken and egg situation – the products are not on the shelves so people don’t buy them, so there’s no demand.As an industry we need to develop non-perishable products and persuade people to incorporate chestnuts in their diet.”
Worldwide consumption of chestnuts is estimated at more than 470,000 tonnes. Most production and consumption is in the northern hemisphere. European production has fallen dramatically and the leading producers now include China, Turkey, Korea and Japan. Demand continues to outstrip supply.
Information on growing, harvesting and using chestnuts can be found by visiting the Chestnut Council’s website www.nzcc.org.nz.
Left to right Rhys Jones, Con Huang, Huan Xie and David Klinac. Rhys is a WINTEC tutor visiting with two international students.
From top: Tony Jolly loading chestnuts for processing into chestnut meal. Jim Stewart with chestnut meal.
Left to right Godfrey Larsen and David Klinac with a machine that peels the shell from whole chestnuts.