- What are Northern Nut Trees?
Northern nut trees are nut producing trees or shrubs that produce crops that can serve as food for humans, livestock, or wildlife. The NNGA promotes the cultivation of those nut trees and shrubs that grow in the temperate zone.
Hardy cultivars (cultivated varieties) are used for commercial nut tree orchards in the south, west, and northwest of this country and similar climates in other parts of the world. There are some nut tree orchards in the midwest and northeast where the potential is largely undeveloped. Hobbyists in nearly all parts of the United States successfully grow cultivars of nut trees.
Nut trees in commercial production are almond, chestnut, hazelnut (filbert), pecan, pistachio, and Persian (English, Carpathian) walnut. Those that have not yet been commercially developed are black walnut, butternut, heartnut, hican, and hickory.
Two non-nut trees with great potential and that are promoted by NNGA are persimmon and pawpaw. Both of these are also virtually undeveloped.
- What are the Potential Benefits of Nut Trees?
Nut trees produce high protein foods with low levels of saturated fat that can be substituted for meat and other animal products. Chestnut flour can substitute for wheat and other grain flours. Nut trees also provide shade and enhance property value for the hobbyist who may have only a few trees. They can be thought of as edible landscaping.
Nut trees can produce high quality food on marginal as well as prime agricultural land. They can also produce crops on land that is too steep or rough for field crops. There is potential for integration with livestock and, on easily tilled land, with crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay.
Some northern nut trees such as black walnut and pecan also produce high quality timber and sequester carbon in the process. Nut tree crops do not require the same levels of fossil fuel inputs needed by other crop systems for plowing, cultivating, and spraying thereby reducing the demand on land production systems for livestock.
- What are Obstacles to the Development of Northern Nut Trees?
There is always the risk of crop failure due to late spring frosts that kill reproductive tissues, summer droughts that reduce the size of nuts, and extremely cold winter temperatures that can kill trees outright. Insects and diseases are always threats. Damage by deer and mice can be a problem particularly in the early years of a planting. Squirrels are a constant nuisance.
Marketing non-traditional foods can be difficult since local markets can only absorb so much production. Pick-your-own and direct markets are limited. Competition with low-cost nuts from all over the world will undoubtedly increase with expanded world trade, although northern nuts tend to have a better taste due to the higher oil content. Outside the well established nut tree growing states, Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas, there is a paucity of yield and growing information.
- What are the Opportunities and Risks in Nut Tree Planting?
There is both great opportunity and great risk for nut tree plantings for food production, even in the key nut tree growing states. Doing one's homework and asking questions of anyone who seems to know anything about the business is essential. Outside the nut tree states, you are pretty much on your own. It is here that members of the Northern Nut Growers Association become an invaluable source for information.
Production of high quality boltwood is perhaps less attractive and definitely a longer term proposition than the opportunity for nut production. Nonetheless, the returns on investment can be quite good, especially when compared with other small-scale tree planting ventures.
If tree crops are planted for aesthetic, hobby, or habitat diversity, the financial opportunities are quite low but so are the risks.
There's also some opportunity for nursery trade propagation. On the speculative side, large numbers of seedling trees of known parentage can be planted for boltwood and/or wildlife food, or for a decidedly more speculative approach and usually for a much longer term, these seedling trees can be evaluated for the identification of superior trees.
- What's Being Done to Improve Opportunities and Reduce Risks in Nut Tree Planting?
The Persian (Carpathian, English) walnut that we're so familiar with is the product of thousands of years of breeding and selection. Our native hickories and walnuts are very similar to the thick-shelled Persian walnuts of 5000 years ago. While NNGA members have identified numerous superior individual native trees in the wild and have bred quite a few cultivars, the Northern Nut Growers Association has only been at it since 1911.
Improving the quality of nut trees takes much longer, approximately 25 years for pecan trees, than improving the quality of annual plants because it takes much longer for them to reach sexual maturity. Therefore their breeding cycles are much longer. Nearly all university and agri-business researchers have stayed away from nut tree crops because of the high risks and long breeding cycles.
Small private growers who don't have the short-term time constraints of universities and corporations can and have made valuable contributions. The Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture and several universities in the nut tree growing states have made significant contributions in nut tree research and breeding and in determining the best spraying and pruning schedules.
- What Can You Do?
You can learn about nut trees by attending meetings of state nut growers association and by attending the annual meeting of the Northern Nut Growers Association. At these meetings you will meet experienced nut growers and researchers and learn about grafting nut trees and planting and maintaining them. You will also learn of the newest and best nut tree cultivars, cultivars that are seldom available from commercial nurseries, and where to get them.
If you're going to plant a tree, why not plant a nut tree?