ROCKPORT, Ill. — Linda and Dale Black walk through the orchard, heads down, then reach out a gloved hand.
A soft "thunk" marks the addition of another chestnut to the five-gallon plastic buckets carried in their other hand.
Harvest at Chestnut Ridge of Pike County is a roughly month-long marathon of hard work, mostly by hand, to gather the bounty of trees stretching in orderly rows as far as the eye can see -- and a way to spread the word about the chestnut.
"Most Americans, particularly in the Midwest, don't know about chestnuts, never had a chestnut, don't know what a chestnut looks like or what it tastes like," Linda said.
Beset by blight, most American chestnut trees died out by the 1930s and 1940s, remembered solely in the opening line of a familiar Christmas carol.
Elsewhere in the world, from Europe to Australia and Asia, chestnuts are common, and as people from those countries emigrated to the United States, they brought along a love for the trees and their fruit. The Blacks hope to capitalize on that interest with their orchard dedicated to what the University of Missouri calls the un-nut.
An opportunity in 2001 to buy the farm adjacent to their home near Atlas led to the orchard. Dale thought about planting walnuts, then a friend suggested chestnuts.
Chestnuts are low-fat compared to other nuts, such as almonds, cashews and pecans, and have a much different texture. Raw nuts taste like a raw potato, and when cooked, the nuts have a mealy texture, more like a vegetable than a nut, and a sweet taste. The nuts can be used in a variety of recipes, with Chestnut Spinach Dip a favorite of the Blacks.
They planted 100 trees, then what started out as what Linda describes as "really his little project" grew into something much larger. They added 1,900 more and still more, topping out right at 3,000 trees, and are the largest growers in Illinois.
Most are Dunstan seedlings, a cross between the classic American chestnut and the Chinese chestnut, which provides all-important blight resistance.
They planted their first trees, three-year-old seedlings, in 2001, and got their first harvest five years later from the fast-growing hardwood trees.
Chestnuts, usually three at a time, grow in prickly burrs on the tree. When ripe, the burrs split and drop from the trees, spilling nuts onto the ground.
The Blacks, along with family and friends who volunteer to help, collect the nuts, walking and even crawling through the orchard with simple equipment like buckets, bushel baskets and gloves.
"It's a lot of hard work," Dale said.
All the exercise "is good for the hips," said Tom Harris, Linda's uncle, who comes down from his home in Norton Shores, Mich., each year to help with the harvest. "It's gorgeous to wake up in the morning and see the beautiful view."
It's important to work fast to gather the harvest before the deer and other wildlife get to them.
Deer are the biggest threat to the orchard and readily adapt to any control measures the Blacks try.
"They love everything about chestnut trees," Linda said. "They know how to eat them better than we do."
This year's yield, some 8,214 pounds, "is a good harvest. We had a dry year, so the nuts as a whole are smaller," Dale said. "We had 4,000 last year. This year, 8,000. If we have any kind of year next year at all it should double to 16,000."
Chestnuts are graded and sold based on size. "Select" or "jumbo" grades have 20 to 24 nuts per pound, while "small" is around 50 per pound, which means there's plenty of nuts to pick up in the orchard.
The Blacks draw on research done by the University of Missouri and Michigan State University and get more support through the Chestnut Growers of America organization and the American Chestnut Foundation.
"With a lot of the things we do, I feel like we are reinventing the wheel," Linda said.
From initial harvests solely by hand, Dale is slowly beginning to automate the process.
A sorter, fashioned by Dale from sheets of high-density polyethylene sheeting and added this year, lets the smallest nuts drop through its holes and augers the larger ones through the tube and into a waiting bin. Another piece of equipment uses tires to squeeze the nuts out of the prickly burr, work that had been done in the past by hand by Linda's mom and aunt. Future plans call for adding augers and conveyors to move nuts along with a modified almond harvester and sweeper to help with harvesting the 30 acres of trees.
Nuts also must be kept refrigerated for freshness. The Blacks added a walk-in cooler for storing the sorted nuts.
With harvest nearly finished, the Blacks shift into marketing mode, selling the chestnuts online and wholesaling to Hy-Vee, which had been importing chestnuts from Italy for store shelves.
"I get a lot of neat stories dealing with people," Linda said. "Chestnuts are like an emotional food. It's reliving old childhood experiences."
Chestnuts simply are traditional fare for many people, often those from other countries, at the holidays -- as well as for the Blacks.
"On Christmas Eve, we have roasted chestnuts. We've made that part of our family tradition," Linda said, adding that everyone likes the nuts, "even our grandkids."
Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com