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Harvest time at the chestnut ranch

  • Greg Dabel picks chestnuts ready for harvest at his Green Valley Chestnut Ranch in Sebastopol on Friday, October 4, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The chestnut has been a dietary staple in Europe since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. It's a nut, but really more like a grain, with a starchy meat that can be ground into flour or cooked like porridge. When picked fresh, chestnuts can be eaten raw, boiled, baked. Roasted, they were the ultimate early cold-weather street food in Europe.

However ingrained they are in Western food culture, chestnuts still remain somewhat of an agricultural curiosity in California, with only a tiny handful of commercial growers on the North Coast.

But one Graton family has been successful cultivating and harvesting this unlikely niche crop for more than 25 years.

The clan, starting with dad Greg Dabel, 63, has developed a loyal following of buyers who order online or find their way to the Dabels' Green Valley Chestnut Ranch during the peak harvest in October to pick their own, gleaning the fallen nuts from the ground where they drop after their imposing pods open.

Harvesting chestnuts is not for the faint of heart or thin-skinned. The pod or burr is as untouchable as a porcupine.

"No matter what you do, you're going to get poked," warns Tim Dabel, 36, who oversees the ranch with his dad while also managing a faith-based nonprofit, Kids for the Kingdom, that combats hunger and facilitates community development projects in 17 countries.

Even in the midst of the October harvest, he broke away to travel to Zambia last week for the dedication of a school.

Tim was just a kid when his parents, Greg and Karen, and grandmother, Gretchen Dabel, bought a bankrupt apple farm in Green Valley in 1983.

"We nurtured the apples. They all go for juice and are organic. But it's not very profitable, so I decided to do chestnuts," said Greg Dabel, who also had a long career managing nonprofits like Circuit Riders of Windsor and the Children's Hunger Relief. It was while covering international affairs as a writer for the faith-based World Magazine that he founded Kids for the Kingdom.

"You can't deliver the hope of The Gospel," he said, "when someone's stomach is roaring loudly."

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