I have been drawn to nuts since I was a child collecting acorns, black walnuts, butternuts, shiny horse chestnuts, not to eat or plant, I just liked them. I think most animals are hardwired to be attracted to these nutrient dense miracles of the plant world, they are high quality fuel for any creature capable of penetrating their often formidable shells and sometimes prickly or sticky husks. They are the largest of seeds, embryonic blueprints for some of the most formidable trees.  


Around 2005 I fell in love with growing food, along with my passion for cooking and environmental issues and a propensity for working with my hands outdoors, organic farming seemed like the only thing to do. Meeting the founding members of Tourne-Sol Co-Operative Farm selling at Finnegans’ Market in my hometown Hudson, Quebec, I was soon hooked on the idea that it was possible for a young person to make a contribution and a livelihood in the local food movement. Within a year, I was running a CSA growing on multiple parcels of “borrowed” land and in my parent’s backyard. In my search for organic seeds I met Ken Taylor at what was then Windmill Point Farm, now the Green Barn Nursery. He was the first person I met who was excited about and working with food-producing trees in our climate.    


Ken was especially passionate about heartnut trees which I had never heard of. I bought all the nuts he had for sale, brought them home and planted them. I started hearing and reading about permaculture, and having been raised by two biologist/environmentalist parents, the idea of producing food in an ecologically beneficial way seemed like a no-brainer. Through my continued mentorship from my friends at Tourne-Sol, specifically Daniel Brisebois, I became interested and educated in seed saving and breeding of vegetables, knowledge which I’m now focused on applying to trees.  


By 2010 I was frustrated by uncertain tenureship where I was farming, which was not conducive to the idea of working with long lived perennials along with infrastructure such as greenhouses or tunnels. I convinced my family to invest in the property of 65 acres which is now Meadowlark Rise Farm in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. We have been certified organic since 2011.The first season here I planted the seedlings I had started in my parents’ backyard, along with purchased trees including a few grafted heartnuts. I could see the obvious potential and merit in tree crops: providing high-quality nutrition for humans with long-lasting ecological benefits. 

When I met Mark Shepard in 2014, having attended his daylong workshop at the Guelph Organic Conference and then reading his book, it filled in the gaps and allowed me to see the great potential of working with tree crops. In his book “Restoration Agriculture” Mark shares his vision of transitioning large-scale agriculture to ecologically designed systems that, in simple terms, produce more with less. By mimicking natural ecosystems with useful, productive species we can create sustainable abundance.  

For the last ten years we have been applying these principles on the 30 arable acres here at Meadowlark Rise Farm. The first step in this transition is water management, working with keyline design to control the water flow over the landscape. The idea is to slow the water’s path, hold it on the higher ground where it is needed and prevent the nutrients and topsoil from washing away to the saturated lowlands. This is done with swales, berms, and ponds following the contours of the land.  Once the water management system is in place trees are planted along these contour lines, with spacing that allows efficient access for harvest, cultivation, grazing etc. 


Tree crops can be much more than a bowl of Christmas nuts. From humans having high-value plant-based protein, carbohydrates and oils, to feeding livestock and harvesting fuel and fiber, sequestering carbon, building soil and purifying water. This is all possible at the same time as creating habitat for many other species, from the macro to the micro. This was all suggested and outlined in a book called “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture” by J. Russel Smith first published in 1928. This is not to mention cultures all over the world, notably here in North America that heavily relied on, or rather thrived on, nut crops long before agriculture as we know it. The idea of relying on perennial tree crops rather than annual grain crops is certainly not new but somehow has been largely overlooked or left behind. However, we are now seeing a renewed interest in tree crops and permaculture.     


All this said we have planted and continue to plant more trees here at Meadowlark Rise Farm. Since we are working mostly with seedling trees with the goal of breeding for multiple uses and diverse “landrace” populations, we are planting at much higher densities than standard orchard recommendations, this allows for natural and human selection and a larger gene pool. We want trees that thrive in our conditions with minimal care. 


Hazelnuts: These are some of the most dependable nuts and have great potential almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere. They tolerate all kinds of marginal conditions, having adapted for thousands of years to climate extremes, fire and heavy browsing from ancient megafauna to modern ruminants and rodents. There are native hazels that grow as far north as zone 3! They are more shrub form in habit, lending themselves to hedgerows and pasture, high-density planting, coppicing and without taking as much space and light as other nut species.  We are growing hybrid hazels which have some of the best attributes of the European Corylus species and our natives. These have been and continue to be selected for disease resistance, especially to eastern filbert blight, along with cold hardiness and productivity. We have approximately 2500 in the ground and plant more every year, bringing in new genetics and selecting seed adapted to our conditions and uses. Hazels are also the quickest nut tree to start to produce in the first five years. 


Heartnuts: They are a variation of the Japanese walnut (juglans ailantifolia var. cordiformis). In my opinion they fill the ecological niche of our native butternut, with which they will readily hybridize. They are resistant to the canker disease which is killing our butternuts. They are also much easier to crack. They are fairly cold-hardy here in zone 4b/5a, though they can suffer from late spring frosts at some locations. We have around 200 seedlings coming to a productive age, roughly 50 trees produced this year. There is quite a bit of variation in nut shape and crackability. Currently we’re seeing around 60% of seedlings producing crackable useful nuts. To me this is totally acceptable given the low cost of seedlings planted at high density, combined with the increased vigor and resilience compared to grafted trees. We have another few hundred that are two to three years old. Heartnuts typically take 7-10 years from seed to start to produce.   

Other walnuts: There are also, of course, our native black walnuts and butternuts. We have some wild butternuts on the farm, but they are all succumbing to the canker disease. There is work being done to find resistant genetics. I love eating black walnuts, even though cracking them is a challenge to say the least. I would encourage anyone planting them to search out improved varieties if the intention is to harvest for food as opposed to timber. Carpathian, Persian or English walnuts are the ones you find at the store. They are not nearly as cold hardy as the other nut trees, but we continue to plant seedlings in hopes of finding some hardy sports. There are places in southern Ontario where they are successfully growing.  


Chestnuts: They have been one of the slowest, most frustrating tree crops for me so far. The potential for chestnuts is impossible to ignore. We are on the border of their native range, but they were once a dominant part of our eastern hardwood forests before being pretty much wiped out by the chestnut blight in the early 1900s.  Known in some circles as the corn tree, the chestnut can produce annual crops of carbohydrate-, fat- and energy-rich nuts. It was also one of the most abundant and popular timber trees, being rot resistant and easy to work with. This “cradle to grave” tree provided material for everything in between- cradles, houses, heat, food and caskets. While we are on the edge of their historical range, I believe there is huge potential for chestnut growing in eastern Canada.  


We have been planting seedling hybrid chestnuts from sources that have been selected for blight resistance/tolerance, cold hardiness and productivity. These hybrids have genes from American, Japanese, Chinese and European chestnuts, all of which have qualities and weaknesses. We’ve planted close to 500 over the last 10+ years and approximately 250 are surviving. We had flowers for the first time this past season.  


Chestnuts are very particular about drainage and soil pH, with a preference for well drained acidic soils (4.5-6.5 PH). Our soil is quite alkaline which I think is definitely limiting their growth. There are some who believe, and I am hopeful, that some genetics will be more tolerant, and that the microbiome of the soil will shift in favor of the trees given time in a regenerative system. I would highly encourage anyone with an acidic, sandy or well drained field to plant some chestnuts!  


Pine Nuts: The pine nut is another slow-growing tree, at least for the first 5 years. It is similar in growth habit and appearance to white pine. We have planted around 150 Korean nut pines. Pine nuts are a high value commodity, along with being year-round photosynthesizers and wind breaks.


Hickory Nuts: I think there’s great potential for many types of hickories. So far we’ve been planting shagbarks from various sources. They are apparently one of the best-tasting nuts around. Our trees are years away from producing and I never seem to beat the squirrels to the few adult trees in the area. Our woodlot is full of bitternut/yellow bud hickory which is unpalatable but can make great oil. Pecans are part of the hickory family, and some varieties and hybrids are cold hardy and, with climate vagaries, may prove interesting. 


Oaks: There are many interesting oaks with various uses and qualities. I have mainly been planting hybrid swamp white oaks that should produce regular crops of low-tannin acorns that can be consumed by humans and livestock. 


We have not had the problem of too many nuts to sell so far. This year we easily sold all that we had in shell at farmers’ markets. I think there is an unlimited market for nuts and nut products. There are definitely issues with processing and scale of production in our region, which I hope will be solved as more trees are planted to merit the investment.  


Our farm is evolving as the trees grow. We continue to grow organic vegetables for market, along with vegetable seed crops. We also have various fruits including Asian pears, raspberries, sour cherries and mulberries. We plan to add ruminants, in addition to our meat chickens, to graze in rotation between the nut trees. Our hope is to make this a demonstration site of a scalable restorative model of food production, along with being refugia for tree genetics and breeding work. I encourage everyone to plant trees of all kinds, especially nuts! They can be rewarding and important in so many ways.  


For more details on growing nuts in Ontario consider joining SONG – the Society of Ontario Nut Growers or ECSONG, our Eastern Chapter.  For anyone who wants to learn more about what we are doing here at Meadowlark Rise Farm or is looking to source trees, we have seedlings available every spring from our farm-selected seed, as well as from Forest Agriculture Enterprises, which are the genetics that Mark Shepard has been working on for 20 plus years. please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. 


Justin Reeves 

Meadowlark Rise Farm 

 Vankleek Hill ON 


“They Must Think I’m Nuts!” – Lessons from a nut tree grower