SILT Showcase September 20th

Red Fern Farm and the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust will be hosting a showcase at Red Fern Farm on Wednesday, September 20 from 10:00 – 2:00. The showcase will include a tour of Red Fern Farm’s chestnut and pawpaw groves, lunch (including venison, pawpaw bars, and persimmon brownies), and information about protecting farm land with SILT. A lawyer and appraiser will be available to answer your questions about land easements and other protection options.

Tom and Kathy in Pawpaw patch
Tom Wahl and Kathy Dice standing in their pawpaw patch at Red Fern Farm.

Space is limited, pre-register by Friday, September 15th by emailing or call (515)278-0550 to reserve your spot. This event is free and open to the public.

Red Fern Farm Showcase Flyer

Tom Wahl on Site Selection and Care of Chestnuts

Tom Wahl spoke on site selection and care of chestnut trees at the Chestnut conference in Letts, Iowa on February 11, 2017. The conference was video taped.  This video is 1 hour and 20 minute long. It covers hardiness zones, drainage needs, Ph requirements and more for chestnut trees.  Information from the conference is available.

You can  watch the vidoe and others from the chestnut conferce on you tube at


Heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia var. cordiformis) is a type of walnut with a heart-shaped nut. All heartnuts are of the Japanese walnut species, or hybrids there of. The heartnut is a genetic “sport” or  mutation of the normal, wild type nut of Japanese walnut.

cracked shell and nutmeat of heartnut
Cracked heartnuts showing shell and meats.

Normal Japanese walnuts are cylindrical, elongated, rough or spiny, very thick-shelled and difficult to crack. In contrast, the heartnut is (more or less) Valentine-heart shaped and somewhat flattened. The heartnut is the easiest of all walnuts to husk and to crack. When moderate pressure is applied across the “shoulders” of the heart, the nut “pops” in two along the suture line, yielding two valentine-heart shaped halves. In cultivars with only “fair” to “good” cracking quality, the kernel breaks in half and comes out in two pieces. In the best cultivars, the kernel falls free from the shell in a single, unbroken piece – the only walnut in the world with this ability. On top of that, the heartnut is also the sweetest and mildest tasting of all the walnuts, beating out the so-called “English” walnut in taste tests every time. As if that weren’t enough, the heartnut has an incredible ability to store at room temperature.


Tom Wahl and Young heartnut
Tom Wahl standing by a 3 year old heartnut in Northern Arkansas.

The flavor actually develops in storage and peaks between five and eight years. Beyond 10 years at room temperature, heartnuts may become slightly stale, but not enough to keep them from being enjoyable.
The heartnut tree itself is incredibly fast growing. With adequate moisture and protection from weed competition they can put on six to eight feet of height growth per year in Iowa. The twigs are often as big around as broom handles. Leaves are compound and can be two to three feet long, with a very “tropical” look. Though the trees can become quite large, they tend to be low and spreading, like a live-oak. An old tree with a three foot diameter trunk and a 100 foot spread may be only 20 feet to 30 feet tall.
Heartnuts prefer moist, fertile, well-drained soil, though they will tolerate somewhat poorly drained soil better than most fruit and nut trees. They are best adapted to zones 5 and 6, with some of the hybrids suited through zone 4.
Superior heartnut cultivars can be grafted onto black walnut rootstock. The resulting tree can be twice as productive as seedling heartnuts or heartnuts grafted onto other heartnut rootstocks. Heartnuts are among the most challenging trees to graft, requiring great skill for success. For this reason, grafted heartnuts are very difficult to find in the nursery trade. More common are heartnut seedlings. The problem with seedlings is that they may grow into trees that bear nuts with no resemblance to those of their parents. Many heartnut seedlings “revert back to wild-type” – that is, their nuts will resemble the thick-shelled hard –to-crack wild Japanese walnuts. Some heartnut parent trees produce as much as 70% of offspring that grow into wild-type trees. On the other hand, the best heartnut parents will produce up to 90% heartnut offspring,

variations of heartnut shapes
Examples of various heartnuts from heartnut seedlings.

especially if they are pollenized by other good heartnut parents. If you are planting heartnut seedlings, you should plant about twice as many as the number of trees you want to end up with – that way, you can grow them up to bearing size, select the ones with the best nuts, and cull the poor ones.
Heartnuts are highly susceptible to walnut bunch disease. The disease is caused by a phytoplasma organism, and it’s transferred from tree to tree by leaf-hoppers. The disease causes “witches broom” type growth on the tree, and is frequently fatal. The good news is that the disease is apparently strongly linked to zinc deficiency in the soil. A foliar feed of the naturally occurring mineral zinc sulfate, applied in the spring, will usually clear up the disease in a single growing season. Zinc sulfate is applied to the soil around the drip line of the tree to prevent the disease from coming back.
Heartnuts have some great potential as a commercial tree. The unique shape of the nut alone makes them very attractive to consumers who eagerly pay $6 to $7 per pound for them. Add to this their rapid growth, heavy bearing, ease of husking and cracking, and great taste, and you have a tree that is well worth growing as a backyard tree or for a serious commercial venture. – Tom Wahl

Commercial Chestnut Growing Conference

Handouts from the Commercial Chestnut Growing Conference held on February 11, 2017 at Letts, Iowa

Iowa Chestnut Primer

Establishment of Chestnut Plantings with video of Tom Wahl’s talk.

Woodland Suitability Table (Because of multiple errors, Tom Wahl no longer recommend using the Woodland Suitability Table)

Mike Gold’s Chestnut Cultivar Handout and video of Mile Gold’s presentation.

All videos of the presentation are availabe at Red Fern Farm’s You Tube Channel

Details on the past conference:
Tom Wahl and Roger Smith are working together to provide a program on growing chestnuts commercially in the Midwest. It  will be held at the Letts Community Room in Letts, Iowa on February 11 from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm. Topics to be covered will include markets, cultural practices and economics. The outstanding potential for economic return of chestnuts will be stressed.

Chestnuts are a valuable nut crop that can be grown in a low-input, chemical free agroforestry system that includes permanent ground cover. Depending on soil types, they can be an excellent crop for land designated as highly erodible. Seedling chestnut trees of superior genetics can begin bearing nuts after 3 – 4 years on a good site and with good management. At 12 – 15 years they can produce 3,000 or more pounds per acre. In Iowa, chestnuts wholesale for an average of $2.60/pound.

The profit potential of chestnuts has encouraged the planting of chestnut groves throughout much of Iowa. Roger Smith, manager and owner of Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers, buys and sells chestnuts.  In 2016 he sorted, bagged and sold over 49,000 pounds of chestnuts grown in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. He sees no end to the market potential of chestnuts and plans to plant an additional 25 acres of chestnut trees to his existing chestnut groves.

Speakers will include Roger Smith, Tom Wahl of Red Fern Farm, Drew Delang of the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Mike Gold of the Center for Agroforestry – University of Missouri. Preregistration is required. The registration of $20 includes lunch, snacks and a 26 page primer on growing Chestnuts in Iowa. Registration is available on line at .  For more information or other registration options call Kathy Dice at 319/729-5905. This program is being sponsored by Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Louisa County, Red Fern Farm and Prairie Grove Chestnut Growers.

Pawpaws for sale

Pawpaw cluster hanging from a tree.
Pawpaw cluster hanging from a tree.

Pawpaws can be very popular at farmers’ markets. If you would like to consider adding them to your display give us a call or email. We are offering discounted prices for orders of 30 pounds or more. As an added bonus we will give you small pawpaws (under 4 ounces) to use as free samples at farmers’ markets.

For 30 pounds or more:

$6/pound delivered within a 1 hour drive of Red Fern Farm

$4/pound picked up at Red Fern Farm

For smaller quantities:

$7/pound at farmers’ markets/retail

$5/pound when picked up at our farm

$3/pound you-pick

You Pick at Red Fern Farm for 2016

 Pawpaws: We will have ripe pawpaws by mid September. Pawpaws are $3.00/pound when you pick them, $5.00/pound when we pick them. Bring buckets, boxes or crates. Ripe pawpaws are very soft and should not be stacked more than 2 deep. Call to schedule a time to stop by our house and we will show you the pawpaw patch. Weekends are very popular, so call early to reserve a time slot. Tuesday – Thursday is an excellent time to have the pawpaw patch to yourself. Picnic tables and portable toilets are close to the pawpaw patches. The grass will be mowed, but not as fine as a lawn. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, prickly chestnut burs are scattered on the ground. Our orchards are in a rural setting, close to “wild” timber. Bring bug repellant. It only takes about 15 minutes to get 5 – 10 pounds of pawpaws. Late afternoon is the best time to pick, but ripe pawpaws will be available all day. Recipes are available.

Aronia berries: Aronia berries are available at 25¢/pound. They will hit the peak of ripeness during early September. We have over 2 acres to choose from, with some shade from young chestnut and heartnut trees. Call for more information. Link to map below.

Chestnuts: We offer you-pick under our chestnut trees. We provide tools and buckets for harvest and designate an orchard all your own to pick for a day. Picnic tables and portable toilets are close to the orchards. The grass will be mowed, but not as fine as a lawn. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, prickly chestnut burs are scattered on the ground. The best time of day to gather chestnuts is late in the afternoon. Plan on coming after lunch and harvest up till sunset.

We have a very long waiting list of people who want to gather chestnuts. If you are new to our You-Pick, your name goes to the bottom of the list. If you can only come on a weekend, it may be years before you get a chance to gather chestnuts. If you can come on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday you have a much better chance of getting to gather chestnuts. Call or email us to get on our list. We will call you when dates open up to see if you can come.

2016 Chestnut You-Pick Prices:
If you want to keep all the nuts you pay $2.50/pound for everything you picked up.  We discount that price by 25 cents if you come on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. On these middle of the week days the price is $2.25 pound.

If you don’t want all the nuts, we will sort the nuts by size and you will pay a higher price, but only take what you want.
Small: $2.50/pound,   Medium and Large: $2.75/pound,   X-Large $3.00/pound

And we will pay you 50¢ for each pound of chestnuts you gather and don’t take home.

Be sure to bring water and snacks. It takes about one hour for one adult to gather 10 – 30 pounds of nuts.

Maps and directions are available or call if you need help finding us.
But be warned, we are outside a lot this time of year . Be ready to leave a message.

Honeyberries – A New Crop for the Midwest?

Lonicera cearulea – blue honeysuckle, AKA “honeyberry”, “haskap” , and “mountain fly honeysuckle ” – by whatever name you call it, this plant is generating some excitement for its potential as a commercial crop.

Honeyberry cluster on bush.
Honeyberry cluster on bush.

The dark blue berries produced on small, multi-stemmed shrubs 2 – 6 feet tall are similar in size and flavor to blueberries. Like Aronia berries, honeyberries have 3 times more antioxidants than blueberries, but unlike Aronia, they taste good right off the bush. Growers report honeyberries sell out very quickly at farmers’ markets.

In the wild, honeyberries are found growing at the edges of wetland
s and in the shade of boreal (evergreen) forests across Northern Europe, Siberia, Northern Japan, and Canada. In the US they are found in the northern Midwest and in the NE from northwest Pennsylvania through New England. Honeyberries should not be confused with the exotic, invasive Amur and Tartarian honeysuckles. Honeyberries are not invasive; in fact, they need care and attention from humans in order to grow and thrive outside of their native habitats. Although they are cold-hardy to -50ºF, they do not compete well against grasses, and some are damaged by direct sunlight at southern latitudes.

Honeyberries originating from low humidity environments tend to be susceptible to the foliar fungal disease downy mildew.

In the wild, most honeyberry fruits are rather small, and flavor can be quite variable, from sweet-tart to bland or even bitter. In Russia and Japan, extensive breeding programs dating back decades resulted in the development of larger, better tasting berries on more productive bushes. In contrast, honeyberries were ignored in North America until quite recently, but brand new breeding programs by Dr. Maxine Thompson at Oregon State University and Dr. Robert Bors at University of Saskatchewan have already yielded some dramatic results. Cultivars producing better-tasting berries and more than twice the size of any in Asia are now available to growers in the US and Canada. Some of these new varieties are suited to mechanical harvesting.

Despite the rapid advances in the development of honeyberries, some significant challenges remain to be overcome before they become an important berry crop in North America. In the nursery trade, honeyberries of Russian origin dominate the US market. These Russian honeyberries bloom in March, well before the bees needed to pollinate them become active. This, pus their susceptibility to sunscald and foliar disease make this strain the least adapted to our latitude and climate. Worse still, some of the Russian cultivars were deliberately bred to have bitter-tasting berries for adding to Vodka. Some of these have found their way into the US market, leading some to believe the hype about honeyberries is fraudulent.

Honeyberries on bush.
Honeyberries on bush.

A great deal of work needs to be done to explore the limits of the honeyberry plant’s adaptability. “How far south can it be grown?” is a question that remains to be answered (current speculation is that zone 6 or 7 will be the limit). How much moisture do these plants need? Though they are found growing at wetland edges, it has been found they grow best in moist but well-drained soil. No one yet knows what the ideal ratio of shade to sunlight will be, or if this ratio will varyat different latitudes. Fertilizer requirements remain unexplored, except that N rates normal for blueberries can be lethal to honeyberries. Recommended plant spacing is just a guess at this point, and will be different for hand-picking verses mechanical harvesting.

One of the most serious problems facing this crop is the name. Many growers and researchers have adopted the Japanese name “haskap”. Others are using the name “honeyberry”. What you call a crop has a profound impact on its marketability. There are many examples of this, but one obvious case is the “Chinese gooseberry”. This plant was grown in the US for over 150 years, yet no-one was even interested in eating them until the name was changed to “Kiwi fruit”. It takes no explanation for why growers chose to replace the name “choke berry” with “Aronia berry”. “Honeyberry” is an excellent name for something you would expect to taste delicious. “Haskap”, to the ears of Americans, may refer to the lid for a special container for hazardous waste. Although I believe the name “honeyberry” will eventually prevail over “haskap”, I also think that the sooner we kill this name, the better.

Honeyberries are not well known in this country; in fact, most Americans have never heard of them. Much needs to be done to educate the public about this new crop, but I have no doubt that a native berry that tastes this good will have a bright future.  – Tom Wahl