A few years ago, Bill Lancaster bought six acres of sagebrush and rocks in eastern Washington state with the idea of creating a natural grove of nut trees. “They told me I was crazy to try to grow nut trees here,” he said. But now his neighbors are buying nut trees from him! His 4 acre grove of trees resembles a natural forest. Walnuts and Chinese Chestnuts, planted on a 60 foot spacing, form the upper story of the grove. Filberts, which grow well in partial shade, fill in the 20 foot high lower story.
There are also peach, plum and pear trees planted in the sunny corners and edges of the grove. Grape vines are trellised around the edge of the grove.Bees from his own hives do the pollinating, and peafowl patrol for insects in the grove.
The grove is just reaching it’s prime, producing 8,000 pounds of nuts each year. But the nut and fruit tree grove is only part of Bill’s cash crop income. On the remaining 2 acres, he grows tree seedlings and grafted trees in a backyard nursery, his most profitable plants. His trees are such high quality, they are sold out for two years in advance. Bill says this grove could produce for another 50 years, with very little further work.
Bill Lancaster is an example of what is possible with a well-managed small nut orchard. You don’t need a huge orchard to make a good income. All you need to do is choose the right nut varieties to grow. Here’s more information on Almonds, Chestnuts, Filberts, Pecans and Walnuts, the most promising nut varieties for small growers because they are already grown in commercial quantities and have established markets. Other lesser-known nut varieties with potential are macadamia, pistachio, jojoba and cashews. These lesser-known nuts have exacting growing and microclimate requirements, so be sure to check with your local agricultural extension agent before getting started with these specialty crops.
The United States is one of the leading almond producing countries in the world. Much of the U.S. crop is grown in the Sacramento and San Juaquin valleys of California, Texas and other areas of the Southwest, as almond trees need mild winters and a long, hot growing season. Yields range from 1,500 to 3,000 shelled pounds per acre per year.
The American Chestnut was once the dominant tree in hardwood forests until the chestnut blight fungus destroyed it over 100 years ago. In recent years, most orchards have planted the blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut. Researchers have developed a hybrid chestnut that combines the best qualities of American and Chinese chestnuts and can be grown in most areas of the U.S. This hybrid chestnut, called the “Dunstan,” has been grown with good results since the 1950s. Find out more from: www.chestnuthillnursery.com
Two big pluses for chestnuts are that they can be grown on land too poor or hilly for other crops and the timber value at maturity is very high – almost as high as black walnut. Average nut yields are 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per acre.
The filbert, also called a hazelnut, was one of the first shrubs to appear following the receding glaciers of the last ice age. Today, filberts are grown in areas with cool summers and mild winters, such as Western Oregon and Washington. Filberts have two markets, in-shell and kernel. The in-shell market is seasonal, from Halloween through Christmas. Kernels are sold to bakers, candy makers and salters (for mixed-nut packs).
Most commercial growers use the Barcelona cultivar, which produces larger nuts and sells for premium prices. A good mature orchard can produce around 1,500 pounds of dried nuts per acre.
The first French and Spanish settlers in America found native pecan trees growing in the Mississippi river valleys. Today, pecans are grown in much of the South and Southwest. Climate dictates where pecans can be grown, as it requires a long, frost-free growing season with warm summers and adequate moisture.
Pecans can begin bearing lightly at four years, with commercial production in eight years. Nut production continues to increase until 20 years of age. A mature pecan orchard can yield from 1,200 to 2,000 pounds of nuts per acre.
Walnut trees are grown for both nuts and timber. A walnut orchard can take a few years to come into full production, but then produces up to 6,000 pounds per acre. Black walnut logs bring premium prices, with single trees bringing thousands of dollars. Bruce Thompson, author of “Black Walnut for Profit” estimates a mature stand of black walnut trees can bring about $100,000 per acre in timber value alone.
To bring in income while the walnut trees are growing, many new planting are using “agroforestry,” which uses double-cropping of walnut trees with pasture crops for harvesting or livestock grazing. Trees are planted in widely-spaced rows, at about 100 trees per acre, with other crops between the rows. In addition to pasture crops, high-value crops like raspberries or blueberries can be used.
Agroforestry can provide income four different ways. For the first few years, the only income is from the crop planted between the trees. As the trees become larger, they are thinned to about 30 trees per acre, with wood from the thinning being sold. After a few years, the walnut trees begin to produce nuts for harvesting. When the remaining thinned trees are mature, they are harvested for veneer logs, which bring thousands of dollars per log.
As they are not as common as fruits and vegetables, fresh local nuts bring premium prices at local or regional farmer’s markets, a roadside stand, direct from the tree (U-Pick), or in bulk to local food co-ops. An additional source of income is “value-added” nut products such as nut butters, candies and cookies which can be produced during off-times. Many growers also sell nut tree seedlings and grafted varieties from their own orchards. This can be even more lucrative than selling nuts.
Although it may take a bit more work and patience to establish a planting of nut trees compared to “instant” crops like vegetables, the trees will continue to increase nut production, and profits, for many years as the trees grow. Nut trees can produce for decades as well, producing an dependable income for many years. For example, the original tree planted in a filbert orchard in Scottsburg, Oregon was planted in 1858 and is still producing nuts today. Now that’s a legacy! To learn more about starting your own tree legacy, read Growing Trees For Profit.