[blockquote cite=”Phil Rutter” type=”center”]”Our only hope as a species going into climate change is to maintain diversity in every possible way we can; and very specifically and emphatically the genetic diversity of our crops.” [/blockquote]
At one point in America’s not so recent past the eastern landscape was dominated by one tree, the American Chestnut. At the turn of the last century the American Chestnut occupied a territory of over 9 million acres and represented one out of every four trees in the eastern forests.
They were notable more than just being everywhere, the trees themselves were majestic, growing over 100 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter. They were the kings of the eastern forest ruling for thousands of years. Their size was felt and the inherent beauty was stunning. It is said that when the trees bloomed in the summer months the mountains of Appalachia looked like they were covered in snow due to the immense amount white blooms on the chestnut trees. It was a sight that was enjoyed by many on the east coast each year for centuries…then disaster struck.
One day in 1904 a fungus was discovered on one of the American Chestnut trees located in the New York Zoological Park. A fungus that would later turn out to be what is known as chestnut blight. From there it spread rapidly throughout the northeast and within 50 years almost every single one of the 3 to 5 billion American Chestnuts were gone. Chestnut blight hit, and it hit hard.
The fungus originated in Asia and was imported on nursery stock. When it arrived it spread like wildfire because the American Chestnuts didn’t have any resistance to the blight like their Asian cousins, or so it was assumed. Based on that assumption the solution at the time was extreme; timber companies eradicated and clear-cut every American Chestnut tree out there in an attempt to control the blight. It is sad that it played out that way, because the trees are gone and with them so is any potential resistance to the blight that might have lied within the forests. Within those standing trees were there any resistant genetics? Possibly, but we will never know because they are gone.
Gone are the trees that were relied up so much by wildlife and humans alike. From the now extinct passenger pigeon to many of the residents of Appalachia, the impact was felt. It was said that chestnuts were so abundant that they could be shoveled off of the forest floor with a shovel, but suddenly they were gone and not coming back. A free, readily abundant staple food source was no longer a part of the landscape.
In Appalachia the American Chestnut was an integral part of life. The nuts were used for food and the trees themselves made great timber being straight grained, lightweight and rot resistant. Rex Mann said that in Appalachia the American Chestnut was part of a life from the cradle to the grave with both the cradles and the caskets being made out of chestnut. But those times are gone and today almost all of the American Chestnuts are gone and all that remains are the memories, the stories, and the stumps where once mighty trees stood for thousands of years; the only remaining markers of the giants that once were such a huge part of the ecosystem and a huge part of America.
The trees are gone, but the roots themselves are still fighting on. Resistant to blight, they continue push up new shoots, trying to regain a foothold. But unfortunately those shoots are short lived, dying in their teen years before they have a chance to flower and reproduce. Despite their short lived success there is a truly amazing resilience to survive there. The mighty trees still holding a place in the landscape and trying and trying to rise again, but given the conditions, the odds of survival and a comeback are low.
And this is where we come in. Like many of the problems we face in the world, we are the species that did the damage, and we are the species that had the ability to restore the damage. It was over 100 years ago that we introduced the blight to America and then we reacted short sighted and some would say profit driven, and cut down all of the original trees. Despite those events we now have the ability to step in and help change the future. Resurrecting and reintroducing these mighty giants into the American landscape.
We can all be a part of the solution.
We can impact the future.
We can leave our mark on the landscape for centuries and generations to come.
There are many people and groups out there leading the way. It is through the dedication and hard work of these people, including my guest Phil Rutter, that there is hope. Though massive breeding programs and the large scale selection of genetics we can all work to find genotypes that are blight resistant. We don’t need labs, we don’t need sophisticated equipment, we don’t need genetic modification, we just need to get a lot of seeds into the ground and observe the results and repeat. It is work that takes a lot of dedication and time, and you have to go into it know that you may never achieve success, but history is being made and progress is being made today. Right now it is happening and we can all participate.
It is only going to be thought the efforts of a lot of individuals and a little bit of luck that we restore that piece of America and bring the American Chestnut back to the landscape.
This interview is with Phil Rutter of Badgersett Research Corporation. We talk about why perennial based woody agriculture is important and how chestnuts and hazelnuts fit into that system. We also talk a lot about plant breeding using mass selection to find genotypes of plants that have the traits that you are looking for. This episode is pretty dense and has a ton of information in it for anyone looking to breed plants. Phil is brilliant and I think I learned more about plant breeding in my conversations with him than I ever have anywhere else. Given how much information is in this podcast and how long this podcast is, I have split it into two parts. This is part one, with the second part coming in episode 58.
Take it all in, enjoy it, and most importantly do something with this information.
One of the Largest Remaining American Chestnut Trees
The American Chestnut in Southern Appalachia: An Oral History
The American Chestnut Blight
Why Woody Agriculture?
The Greatness that is the American Chestnut
- Both chestnuts and hazelnuts coppice very well.
- Establish a population that lives and thrives first. Then select desired traits based on that.
- Breeding is simple, yet complex. The complexity comes in when you are trying to bring out desired traits.
- Know what our goal is when you start breeding so you know what to look for.
- Planting chestnuts at suggested spacing is an enormous waste in the beginning. Crowd them in there tight and you will be able to look at many more genotypes and then cull from that.
- Swap the best plants with each other.
- Take good records and notes about your breeding practices.
- Do your homework early on. Are there trees already growing out there? Can you obtain those genetics? Ask the old timers.
- When breeding use dense plantings. That saves space and makes it easy to identify the good and bad trees easily due to the variety of genotypes in a given area. It also creates a favorable biome that helps control grass and conserve water.
- Chestnut wood is very rot resistant and highly valuable as wood. A lot of your culled trees can be used as a pole wood. There is a valuable resource there.
- “Be resistant or die.”
- “Kill more trees quickly.”
- “Don’t put in a permanent fence until you have been on the property for three years.”
- “You don’t know where your breeding is going to go when you start doing this. The plants know things we haven’t imaged and if you’ve got your eyes open and watch them they will show you and they will change what you are doing.”
- “Our only hope as a species going into climate change is to maintain diversity in every possible way we can; and very specifically and emphatically the genetic diversity of our crops.”
- “Farmers are where the diversity comes from and we need to do that again.”
- “Agriculture as it is today is killing us, there is just no question about that, we have to do something different. Here is a possibility.”
- “It is good to find your own plants and cultivate them.”
“Chestnuts are an unusually useful tree and possibly a very important crop in the near future. The wood is attractive and lighter than oak but strong for its weight. It also works unusually well, with the only fault being a tendency to split easily (which is great if you’re making shingles or rails, but not so hot for furniture). It’s as rot resistant as redwood or cedar and has fibers that are quite desirable for paper making. The bark and heartwood used to be the US‘s single most important source of tannic acid. The forest trees grow very straight and fast (30% faster than oaks), and when cut down, they grow back from the crown of the existing root system very strongly. In the East, most of the first generation of telegraph poles were chestnut.
The nuts are unlike other nuts in that they are very low in oil (˜2%). They spoil easily when fresh but keep for years if dried properly. They have excellent protein, similar to both beans and maize. Besides the fresh chestnut uses of roasting and going into stuffing, dried chestnuts can be ground for flour and used in bread and pasta. In Europe and Japan, candied chestnuts known as marrons glaces are a great delicacy, selling for $14/lb or more. Both trees and nuts can also be used for animal feed. Importantly, even wild chestnut trees tend to have good nut crops every year, unlike oaks and walnuts, which tend to have some years of heavy production (“mast” years) mixed with some years of very small crops.”
Source: Badgersett Research Corporation
“Hazelnuts grow wild all around the Northern Hemisphere, and wherever they are found, the local people eat all they can get. There are about 10 species, belonging to the genus Corylus in the Birch family. Many people know them by the name “filbert”, but to cut down on confusion the industry has opted to call all the nuts from the various species “hazelnuts”. We have two species in North America, the American hazel (Corylus americana) and the Beaked hazel (C. cornuta), both of which are bushes. At present, all of the nuts in the world market come from the European species (C. avellana), which is a small tree. The hybrids we are developing at Badgersett are crosses among these three species. Our own lines were founded primarily on other breeders’ original crosses made in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
If you read much about hazels you will eventually run into the terms “hazelbert”, “filazel”, and “trazel” for various kinds of hybrids. We find these distinctions more confusing than useful (“New York Hazelberts” and “Wisconsin Hazelberts” are very different kinds of plants), and prefer simply to call all these plants hybrid hazels.”
Source: Badgersett Research Corporation
[blockquote cite=”Phil Rutter” type=”center”]”You don’t know where your breading is going to go when you start doing this, the plants know things we haven’t imagined yet.”[/blockquote]
Woody Agriculture Research and Development with Phil Rutter
Introduction to Woody Agriculture
Hazelnut Machine Harvest
Chestnut Polenta via Badgersett
“Two systems of intensive food and fiber co-production using woody plants are proposed. Potential effects on atmospheric CO2 are discussed, and could be highly significant if such systems were widely implemented. A maximum carbon fixation rate of 1.82 X 10^13 g/ 10^6 hectares/ year is calculated, more than triple the average for maize. If all United States croplands planted to maize or soybeans in 1986 (55.5 million hectares) were planted to such woody crops, at least 1.01 X 10^15 g carbon/year would be fixed, a large fraction of which could be sequestered for long periods of time or substituted for fossil fuels.
This paper considers a possibility which has so far been discussed little or not at all. Yet it is an option which might do much to ameliorate the increase of CO2 in our atmosphere. It deserves careful examination.
I propose that we consider gradually shifting our agricultural system away from its current reliance on annual plants, and instead increasingly rely for foodstuff staples production on woody perennial plants. It may actually be possible to replace maize, rice and wheat with nuts and other kinds of fruits grown on woody plants. What I am suggesting is something substantially different from the commonly discussed “tree crops” concept of J. Russell Smith, which is concerned with basically traditional gathering of tree fruits; different from horticulture, which deals mostly with “luxury” crops; and different from “agroforestry” which calls for growing trees and crops together. The concept proposed here I call “woody agriculture”: the intensive production of protein, carbohydrates and oils from highly domesticated woody perennial plants. Please note that I do not say “trees”- while one of the systems discussed here would use trees, others do not.”
Read the full article HERE.
Temperate woody plants can fix 1.82 X 10^13 grams of carbon/10^6 hectares/year. Planting 1/4 of the present world crop lands to woody plants would result in enough extra carbon absorption to completely counteract the present carbon overload. Intensive worldwide programs to develop woody crops for the differing regions may be the most effective, least expensive, most beneficial response humans can make to the global warming threat.
The possibility that woody plants could be further domesticated and grown so as to provide food production equal to traditional cereal crops while simultaneously producing fuel wood promises enormous benefits. Current reliance on annual plants for food results in the world’s most fertile soils being rendered sterile and non-photosynthetic for large parts of the growing season, due to the requirements of constant planting and tilling. Woody plants are genetically much more diverse than annuals, giving us a wealth of variation to select from, and in temperate regions calculations show that woody plants can fix more than 3 times as much CO2 per year as annual grains such as maize. In the paper presented last year to the North American Conference on Preparing for Climate Change, I pointed out many of the theoretical considerations which indicate that such development is possible (1), and gave details of specific plants and cultivation systems which would allow food production equal to that of annuals, plus production of wood fiber for fuel or other uses. These models include both large scale mechanized systems and “human powered” alternatives. Co-production of food and fuelwood from the most productive agricultural lands could do much to alleviate fuelwood shortages, and would relieve pressure on the forests of developing nations. This could contribute greatly to stabilization of watersheds, water tables and soils, and could also contribute further to CO2 removal by allowing forests to grow undisturbed.”
Read the full article HERE.
Hybrid Hazelnut Handbook by Philip A. Rutter
“Hybrid hazelnuts have been under development in the Upper Midwest of the USA since the 1930’s, though progress and attention to the work has been sporadic, unofficial, and fragmented. In the late 1970’s, the senior author began collecting the products of previous workers’ breeding, including Carl Weschcke, Jack Gellatly, George Slate, and Cecil Farris. Following a decade of initial testing, major new plantings were made of crosses among these various lines, and a new round of intensive selection and breeding was undertaken at Badgersett Research Farm.
At this point, in the year 2001, the indications seem clear to many different individuals and agencies that the developing hybrids do indeed contain the characteristics necessary for the foundation of a genuine hazelnut industry for the region.
Besides the full commitment of Badgersett Research Corporation to this new industry, individuals, RC&D’s, and SWCD’s in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, and Nebraska have begun making plantings of hybrid bush hazels that are intended not to demonstrate or test, but to produce nuts as a crop. The University of Minnesota has established test plantings on its field stations across the state, the National Arbor Day Foundation has planted 9 acres directly in front of its Lied Conference Center, and the US Army has thousands of plants being established at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. Individuals and institutions in 40 additional states, from Maine and Alaska to Texas have started small test plantings.
While the crop now has real momentum and a committed core group of growers, it is nonetheless still in what can only be described as an “embryonic” state. We do not yet have tons of annual production (though the plants for that are already in the ground), and a number of processes remain to be moved from the experimental state to the commercial.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, these new hybrid bush hazels are significantly different from the hazels currently used in world hazel production.
Fortunately, because these plants are immensely more cold hardy, more disease resistant, and because they are bushes, not the trees Oregon and Italy rely on. Big trees require perpetual pruning and cannot ever be as productive as good bushes can- in all crops, growers now change to bush forms (sometimes just called “dwarfs” if derived from tree forms) as quickly as breeders can provide the necessary genetics.
Unfortunately, because most of the accumulated wisdom and information on how to grow hazelnuts, based on those trees, is proving near useless in dealing with these hybrids.
Hence this handbook; which is intended to give the reader a solid basic grounding in all the factors involved in commercial hazel production, from plant establishment and maintenance to marketing. In addition to this handbook, an electronic version with more extensive discussion and photographs, will be maintained as part of the Badgersett Research Corporation Web site, at www.badgersett.com.”
Access the handbook HERE.
A New Chestnut
“In America as in Europe, the chestnut was the “bread tree,” providing a staple that could be boiled and mashed to replace potato as a starch, ground into flour to make noodles or bread (a favorite use of the Cherokee, who made chestnut cornbread), or eaten out of hand, either raw or roasted, for a nutritious, filling snack. In October the vast stands provided an almost limitless supply of free food, dropping nuts that glistened like gemstones and fed not only people but also wild turkeys, pigs (whose ham made Virginia famous), and other animals that were themselves important foods. Chestnuts, easy to dry, gave Appalachian families a source of income and a way to survive the winter.”
Read more via The Atlantic HERE.
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You contact Phil and Badgersett HERE.
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