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The scientist in the woods

Fri, Aug 8th, 2003
Posted in Features

Phil Rutter is pictured with chestnut seedlings in a three season greenhouse at Badgersett Research Farm near Amherst. Rutter is credited with helping to restore chestnuts to the American landscape. Photo by John Torgrimson

There may be no other person in America that is more closely associated with woody agriculture than Phil Rutter. In the June 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Senior Editor Corby Kummer, in his article A New Chestnut, credits a “dedicated few” with helping to restore the American Chestnut tree. Phil Rutter, who founded the American Chestnut Foundation in 1983, appears prominently in Kummer’s article as one of those “few”.In 1904, a fungus brought into this country by imported Asian Chestnuts began destroying great stands of American Chestnuts. The Asian trees were resistant to the blight, the American trees were not. Rutter grows chestnuts and hazelnuts on his 160 acre farm near Amherst. Badgersett Research Farm is part field laboratory part farm. Thirty acres is devoted to plant trials in hazelnuts and chestnuts. Another 50 acres is planted to a hazelnut crop that, five years from now, Rutter hopes to be harvesting through mechanized farming techniques, just like row crops are being harvested now on surrounding farms. Some recent hazelnut trials have shown yields of 8000 lbs. of dry nuts per acre.Rutter has studied over 10,000 hazelnut and chestnut varieties since the late ‘70’s and has developed plants that are suitable for northern climates. Not a fan of the corn/soybean model that dominates Midwest farming, Rutter says that “these plants are being grown where they don’t belong.”“Corn is a long way from Guatemala and soybeans, well, how far is China?” Rutter asks.Rutter, who left a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota a thesis short of a doctorate, refers to himself as an “evolutionary ecologist”. When I look at the soils on this farm, Fayette tells me Forest, and Tama tells me Savanah/Prairie,” Rutter says, as his hand waves at the rolling hills. “These thin soils are highly erodible. Hazels (hazel-nuts), with their deep roots, are helping save this land.”Coincidentally, Rutter sees hazelnuts as a perfect replacement for soybeans and chestnuts for corn. “Whatever you can make from corn, you can make from chestnuts,” Rutter says, noting that the chestnut is high-starch, high-protein, and low-oil. Walking through a grove of chestnuts, Rutter talks about the suitability of land for growing things. When a Marsh Hawk flies in the air, singing kee-kee, with a field mouse grasped in its talons being chased by two juveniles, Rutter says, “That is the sound of farming.”By this Rutter means that a developed ecosystem is able to manage itself naturally, as pests and vermin are controlled through natural elimination. “There are four kinds of weasel on this farm,” Rutter says proudly, making a point about how the food chain works at Badgersett to control pests.Plant geneticsBadgersett, which has three full-time and two part-time employees, uses a variety of propagation techniques to cross-breed plants, including grafting and cloning. Rutter is constantly looking at ways to improve varieties. One example of this has to do with the alder tree which is in the same birch family as the hazelnut. As alder trees have nitrogen fixing capabilities, Rutter hopes to isolate the nitrogen fixing elements of the alder and introduce them into the hazel. Hazels use large amounts of nitrogen.Similar things are being done with chestnuts. One problem with chestnuts, which can grow more than 100 feet tall, is harvesting. Rutter is crossing chestnuts with Seguin, a Chinese chestnut that is more shrub-like to produce a tree that can be more easily harvested mechanically. Like any laboratory, Badgersett is continually doing trials by introducing more variables into the equation. But sometimes discoveries are accidental. In a three season greenhouse, Rutter points out a three foot chestnut growing in a pot that was planted in May of this year. Next to it is an eight inch chestnut planted at the same time. The plants are identical except for the conditions the plants were planted in. The three foot plant was planted in a foot wide pot while the eight incher was put in a two inch pot. In the field, Rutter has found that ten year old hazelnuts when cut back to the ground return vital and healthy. “It’s like re-booting your computer,” Rutter laughs. Rutter has the ability to make science seem simple: “What would happen if you had a plant population and there was an earthquake and a mountain rose up and divided the land? You would have the same plants growing and evolving differently in two ecosystems. They would each develop unique properties adaptable to their specific environments. And what happens if you introduce them to each other later? You have the potential to have a new species.”Called hybrid swarms, Rutter attempts to replicate this on purpose so as to introduce diversity into the plant population. Following Badgersett’s Field Day on August 16, Rutter, using a grant from the Experiment in Rural Cooperation, a citizen based organization linked to University of Minnesota research, will begin excavating some hazelnut trees to test for carbon capture.Rutter and a researcher from the University will use water to erode 10 plants, exposing their ten foot roots. The roots will then be tested for carbon. Carbon credits are bought and sold at the Chicago Grain Exchange. Rutter believes the test results have the potential to add further value to hazelnuts.MarketingBadgersett will sell 60,000 trees that have been grown in their greenhouses this year. And most of their harvestable nuts are used to grow new seedlings, for both testing as well as purchase by tree farms. Badgertsett has three satellite farms growing hazelnuts and chestnuts today, two in Wisconsin and one in Illinois. The American Heartland Hazelnut Association, a marketing organization with members in five states was recently formed to promote the product nationally. Mechanized harvesting trials have been done on hazelnuts using a blueberry picking machine. According to Rutter, the machine is very good at picking nuts from the 12 to 15 foot hazelnuts.But for woody agriculture to be successful, Rutter believes that hazelnut production must be designed so that any row crop farmer will understand. “They (farmer) would be able to hire it done (planted), they would maintain it, and a combine will harvest it,” Rutter said. “There must be real world applications.”Dick Broker, Executive Director of the Experiment in Rural Cooperation, calls Rutter's single-minded devotion “an exceptional story.”“This doesn’t happen in the modern world today, where an individual spends 20 years doing field work that could one day revolutionize agriculture,” Broker said. Rutter believes that woody agriculture, using hybrid tree production, can contribute to feeding the world. “By the time I die, I believe I will see a million acres of hazelnuts being grown and marketed in the United States,” Rutter, 55, says, noting that his father turned 90 two years ago. “After all, not many farmers were growing soybeans fifty years ago?” Badgersett Research Farm’s Annual Field Day begins at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, August 16. For more information call 507-743-8570.

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