Page 52 - Vallet Table - Spring 2020
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                                 of them hot and right out of the shell with just a dab of butter, then chopped up a few others and dropped them into a bowl of vegetable soup. They added good substance and texture to the soup.
In the Hudson Valley, fresh local chestnuts are not easy
to find, as is the case elsewhere in the United States. This may change as more farmers and orchardists plant hybrid Asian/American chestnuts which, after a half century of cross breeding, have become increasingly blight resistant. Each fall, Tim Stark of Eckerton Hill Farm in Pennsylvania sells local hybrid chestnuts at his farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. On our farm, we currently have two surviving hybrid trees which I planted 20 years ago. In 2018 they gave a bountiful harvest, which was quickly scooped up by our farmers’ market customers.
Last year was a different story. The few fruits our trees
did produce were quickly carried off by squirrels. We assume the dearth of production was due to the very dry summer in our area. And perhaps the trees needed to take a breather after their abundant offering in the previous year. Regardless, we remain bullish on chestnuts. This past fall, we planted five more hybrid chestnut seedlings, purchased from Twisted Tree Farm in Tioga County.
Unlike most nuts, chestnuts contain relatively little protein and fat. Instead, they are rich in carbohydrate and fiber — nutritionally similar to brown rice. They also have good amounts of vitamin C, iron, potassium, and magnesium.
In centuries past, they were a staple food of European peasantry and were widely consumed in North America by indigenous Americans and settlers alike, until the blight came and delivered its death blow.
In my previous article on chestnuts, I mentioned that work was underway at the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse to develop a 100 percent American chestnut with complete blight resistance. The strain that currently shows the most promise is known
as Darling 58. The only catch is that this would be a genetically modified tree. Specifically, it would contain a gene from a species of wheat.
As an organic farmer, I do not favor transgenic food crops for two major reasons: Most of them, like Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready line (corn, soy, canola, sorghum, and possibly soon, wheat) are engineered for use with the company’s ubiquitous herbicide, glyphosate, popularly known as Roundup. This leads to more liberal use of a product which is harmful to natural ecosystems and the World Health Organization has declared a probable human carcinogen.
My other major objection to GMO crops is that they are invariably patented by the companies that develop them. In many instances, patents are justified — they make money
for both inventors and investors and exclude others from freeloading. Presumably, this stimulates invention. But when large multinational companies patent and therefore own seeds, I believe we are going a step too far toward overwhelming corporate control and ownership of our food system. Since
the beginning of agrarian times, farmers have saved seed for
the next season. In the brave new world of GMO seeds, this is generally either illegal or not even possible.
I want to believe the transgenic chestnut under development at SUNY Syracuse is in a different category. There are several reasons to think this. One is that the wheat gene being introduced is not herbicide- or pesticide- dependent. Another is that it comes from within the
plant kingdom and can be found in numerous species of vegetables, fruits, grasses, mosses, and fungi. Common examples, in addition to wheat, include: peanuts, oats, beets, strawberries, bananas, spinach, and corn. The gene in question enables chestnut trees to produce an enzyme that detoxifies the blight which has destroyed so many of them.
Another encouraging difference is that the transgenic chestnut, if approved (the USDA, EPA, and FDA will all have a say in this), will come from a state university rather than a corporate laboratory and will reside in the public domain. The primary goal of this project is to restore the American chestnut to its rightful place in our forests, rather than to generate profit.
Meanwhile, at SUNY Syracuse, numerous studies are underway to determine if their transgenic creation will have any adverse effects on other forest organisms such
as neighboring plants, bees, tadpoles, and beneficial
fungi in the soil. So far, field tests indicate no ill effects to natural forest systems. In fact, these systems could well be enhanced by the return of a familiar species that was part of the ecology over many millions of years. If all continues to go well in the approval process, a transgenic American chestnut could be available as soon as 2021.
There are few things we do in this world that are
without risk, and I am well aware of the law of unintended consequences. Even so, I’m cautiously optimistic and am at least tentatively rooting for Darling 58. I really want to see the beloved chestnut make a comeback. When I chatted with Valerie about the possible return to North America
of her favorite tree, she said whoever does that deserves a Nobel Prize. 
50 the valley table march – may 2020

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