Chestnuts are prickly and rather difficult. They are not just casually roasting on an open fire. You must get through the spiny, sharp outer burs to experience the tasty reward within. This, and many other chestnut lessons are among things Chris Vincent and Tonya Meyer, new owners of Allen Creek Farm in Ridgefield, are learning since purchasing the chestnut oasis in March 2020. Living in Oregon City for 18 years, the couple, now retired, wanted a quiet place to settle with at least 10 acres. The chestnut farm, which needed TLC, was an unexpected and welcome surprise.
“We have this habit of trying to save things,” says Vincent. “And this orchard really needed someone with a background to run it, fix things, and figure out how things work.”
The couple’s fit with the niche farm (one of about 100 in the country) would seem a match made in heaven. And their desire to infuse new life force energy back into the chestnut farm is doable. Vincent brings a farming background to the table thanks to his upbringing on a 2,500-acre sheep and timber ranch on the southern Oregon Coast. His uncle ran an organic avocado and apricot farm in southern California.
“Chris is very handy,” shares Meyer, whose background as a medical lab technician and teacher lends nicely to the chore of administrative work for the farm. “He is used to running big machinery and fixing stuff.”
Vincent and Meyer are the third owners of Allen Creek Farm. The Riley Family came second from 2017-2020. Founded in 1999 by Ray and Carolyn Young, the 20-acre Clark County chestnut farm was born and thrived during the Young’s tenure. The Young’s built the house, planted the chestnut tree orchard with 800 (now 700 plus) Colossal chestnut trees on 15 of the acres, built needed farm equipment, and created systems to manage the annual harvest, that averaged 10,000 pounds at that time.
“The plantings of the trees are methodical,” explains Vincent of the Young’s grid work for the orchard. “Each tree is laid out in relationship to the other trees so there would be good wind pollination and lots of fertile nuts.”
Meyer says the first harvest they experienced in late September 2020 was crazy with a 15,000-pound yield. “It was a lot more than we expected,” she says. “Typically, chestnut harvest season starts in October, and this year will be our second harvest.”
The Young’s put a 20-foot shipping container serving as a controlled atmosphere storage unit for fresh harvested chestnuts needing refrigeration and humidity (the nuts are up to 60% water) in the processing barn. But when the 2020 chestnut windfall arrived earlier than usual – and, also during the pandemic and smoke from numerous Western United States wildfires — the refrigerated unit for the chestnuts was not working properly. A part was needed and would take 10 or more days to receive.
So, Vincent and Meyer wasted no time sending pounds of fresh chestnuts to people they knew. They also started drying the nuts to preserve them. “You can sell fresh nuts to people, or you can dry them,” explains Meyer. “Dried nuts give you a lot longer storage time frame.”
While Meyer admits to not being fully ready for the first harvest, the dynamic duo is getting ready for chestnut harvest action this year. Thankfully, the trees do participate in this three-to-four-week process by simply dropping the ripened chestnuts sheathed in their prickly burs to the ground where they open to finally reveal the nutty goodness inside. Squirrels and other critters that live among us await this nutfall too. But Vincent and Meyer do not mind the squirrels. “There is enough surplus for the squirrels,” shares Vincent. “We aren’t concerned.”
It is important to get the chestnuts off the ground quickly after they are swept into rows. This means each day about half of the fallen chestnuts are picked up using a harvester or nut wizard, processed, inspected for quality, and sorted by size. They are then properly packaged and stored.
“We are still in the discovery phase and learning how to make things work better,” says Vincent. “Ray and Carolyn set up the basics, and now we want to take the steps to automate things to make things go more smoothly.”
The farm has a commercial kitchen where the Young’s used to produce chestnut goods such as flour, various mixes, and chestnut bisque soup, to name a few. Vincent and Meyer are still making decisions around marketing matters and chestnut goods. For now, Meyer says they will sell dried nuts and gluten free chestnut flour (yes, chestnuts are gluten free). “Fresh chestnuts are pretty much available in October and November,” says Meyer.
Dried chestnuts can be rehydrated for cooking, and they are high in fiber and vitamin C. There are many ways to use chestnuts in cooking, including purees, salads, stir fries, and even cheesecakes.
To learn more visit the Allen Creek Farm website, which is still in the process of being updated.