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Rare chestnuts win top prize in Pa. Farm Show

January 23, 2000|By DON AINES

WILLOW HILL, Pa. - The village smithy never stood under a spreading chestnut tree, Lester Martin said Sunday as he sat at the kitchen table of his farmhouse.

"It was a white oak. It's still alive," he said about the tree immortalized in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

A few minutes earlier he had been standing under a leaning chestnut tree at his 200-acre farm near Willow Hill. Bare of leaves and infested with cankers, it is a nondescript tree along a fence row in a snow-covered field.

At the Pennsylvania Farm Show earlier this month, however, this tree was judged to have produced the finest native American chestnuts in the state. "This is the second time that tree has taken first place," he said.

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Martin, 67, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspector, would be the first to tell anyone the category is not a hotbed of competition at the farm show. "I would imagine they were the only ones there this year," he said.

The only other time he entered his chestnuts was 1995 and "there was one other competitor, but they were moldy," he said.

Martin's farm show ribbon from that year hangs proudly from the antler of a mounted caribou head in his cavernous family room, along with some hunting caps.

Where there were once tens of millions of chestnut trees covering the mountains and valleys east of the Mississippi, true American chestnuts are a rare breed, according to Martin. His, in fact, is a hybrid of American and Korean chestnut strains.

Martin sent leaves from his tree to Connecticut where a researcher determined its lineage. When he comes across other chestnuts in the woods, he sends off more leaves in hopes of finding a pure American chestnut.

"She does DNA testing on them," Martin said. "They're really hunting American chestnuts for gene splicing. They're few and far between, the pure Americans."

That's because of the chestnut blight first discovered in New York in 1904. In three decades the bark fungus all but wiped out the American chestnut, but Martin said modern science could bring them back.

"The American Chestnut Association is doing gene-splicing, and they predict by 2007 they'll have a blight-resistant chestnut," he said.

Bringing back the American chestnut like a dinosaur from "Jurassic Park" would recreate a tree that was popular for more than its nuts. The tree's wood was used for fences, barns and other structures. "It was strong, it was light, it weathered well," Martin said.

Asian varieties and hybrids are more blight-resistant and produce large nuts but aren't good timber trees, he said. Purebred American chestnut trees are now usually found in clear-cut areas but only survive a few years before succumbing to the blight.

The tree on the farm he has owned since 1957 is about 50 years old and "had cankers on it 30 years ago," Martin said.

He expects it will continue to bear nuts for several more years. When they are ready for harvest, he stands in the bucket of a front end loader to pick the nuts "before the squirrels get to them," he said.

Once they were husked and shelled, the tree produced only about a quart of nut meat. "They're good, sweet eating if you don't break your teeth on them," he said.

"I'm sort of a nut enthusiast," Martin said. He has about 100 trees on his farm, including English walnut, filbert, pecan, hickory and hican trees. The hicans are a graft of hickory and pecan trees.

If he ever decides to retire from his job, Martin said he'll raise and graft trees for sale. One of about 200 members of the Pennsylvania Nut Growers Association, he said its not a big industry in the state, with only a handful of growers selling trees or marketing nuts.

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