When it comes to nuts in North and Central Florida, pecans and chestnuts are the more popular choices for trees, as they both grow well in those regions. These two trees have several things in common — they both need well-drained soil, they both need two trees for cross-pollination and they both have a minimum 250-chilling unit requirement.
According to the University of Florida, "Chilling requirement and chilling hours are sometimes used interchangeably, but chilling requirement refers to the exposure to cool temperatures (32 to 55 degrees) necessary for the resumption of normal spring growth. The chilling requirement is expressed as the number of chilling units. A chilling hour is defined by the maximum amount of chilling that can be received by the plant in one hour."
Chestnut trees are native to parts of the northeast United States. However, they were killed off by chestnut blight in the early 1950s. Luckily for chestnut lovers, Robert T. Dunstan, a member of the Northern Nut Growers Association and well-known plant breeder in Greensboro, N.C., later developed the Dunstan Hybrid Chestnut, a cross between an American version and a Chinese version that was able to withstand blight and was subsequently planted in North Central Florida.
"Chestnuts are being sold for commercial reasons and for backyards as they have a beautiful canopy," said Debbie Gaw, one of the owners of Chestnut Hill Tree Farm, set on 220 acres in Alachua County, just northwest of Gainesville. "They also bear nuts in three to five years, so the wait isn't long."
Dunstan hybrid chestnut trees can grow more than 50 feet tall and 12 to 16 feet in diameter.
Pecans, one of America's all-time favorite nuts — they rank third behind almonds and English walnuts — take more time to deliver the goods.
In fact, it can take up to 10 years for a tree to produce nuts, so for growers it may take time to recover initial investment costs.
Once the trees do reach maturity, they can be as tall as 70 feet and span 80 feet in diameter. They are the largest member of the hickory tree family.
"We have six or more varieties of pecans, such as Desirable Pecans and Stuart Pecans," said Gaw, who explained that Central Florida is the southernmost range that pecan trees can grow and produce nuts.
Pecans make for delicious pies, toppings for baked goods and wholesome snacks, while chestnuts can be roasted, used in fillings, stuffing and in desserts, as well as in Italian gelato.
According to UF, "The combined acreage of deciduous and subtropical/tropical fruit and nut crops in Florida is approximately 30,000 acres. Crop value per acre varies widely, from approximately $36,000 per acre for early season blueberries to about $500 per acre for pecans."
The national figures for pecans are substantially larger as the 2010 U.S. pecan crop totaled 259.7 million pounds and was valued at $556 million (AGMRC 2012).
The USDA does not report statistics on U.S. chestnut production and consumption separately. However, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the United States had 1,200 farms growing chestnuts on more than 3,300 acres.
Florida was one of the top five states with the most chestnut farms. Others were Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oregon and California.
There is good news for nut growers and lovers — sales of Florida nuts were rising, according to FDACS's 2011 annual report. "Receipts for other fruits and nuts, such as avocados, blueberries, pecans, and miscellaneous fruit and nuts, at $117.6 million, were up from $98.7 million in 2008."