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Central Standard

In The Fall, Kansas Orchard Ships Chestnuts Across America

The chestnut harvest in Kansas ends during the first few weeks of October, and every year around that time 40 to 50 workers pick pounds of nuts from 1,500 chestnut trees on an orchard right outside of downtown Lawrence.

Since 1995, Charlie NovoGradac, also known as "Chestnut Charlie," and Deborah Milks have been cultivating, collecting and distributing chestnuts.

When the harvest is over, the orchard is covered in gigantic thorny cockleburs. As they ripen during the season, these prickly husks open and release the chestnuts.

"The chestnut usually needs a couple weeks to age to get sweet. It's a starch that converts to sugar over a period of time. The longer it ages, the sweeter it becomes," says NovoGradac. 

After the chestnuts are cleaned and washed, they're inspected for squirrel bites before being pulled by a conveyer belt that Milks says started its life as a treadmill. Many of the instruments and tools on the orchard have been built out of other items. Milks says it's important to them that their business be sustainable.

"Chestnut Charlie is not only a horticulturalist, he is totally an engineer and a mechanic," she says. "He makes everything. All of these machines that we have out here. We are definitely a reuse and recycle kind of operation." 

The nuts drop off the conveyer belt into the separator — a large revolving tumbler with graduated holes that sort the small from the large. Milks takes the sized chestnuts and dumps them into different sized bags. 

"From there they get one more bath and then they go into the cooler. You have to keep chestnuts very very cold in order to preserve them so they're in 32 degrees at high humidity," she explains.

The image of chestnuts may bring to mind the lyrics of a certain cheery Christmas song — but Charlie says that if you roast your chestnuts over an open fire, you need to follow some particular instructions.

"You want to score the skin, cut the skin with a knife. Chestnuts have water in them and will blow up if you don't release the gas," he says. "The chestnuts will be done when you say they're done. You can eat a chestnut raw so all you need to do is get it a little warm so that it peels and then enjoy the starchy kernel."

Chestnuts are an international food with a variety of recipes from many European cultures. There's an Italian dressing that involves chestnuts, and a traditional French dessert called Mont Blanc. Though the blight of American Chestnut trees in the 1900s reduced interest in the United States, the farmers at Chestnut Charlie's orchard are working to increase their popularity in America.

"We have customers from all over the country. All the way from Juno, Alaska down to Key West, Florida." Deborah Milks says.