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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."

Having grown up in the North Bay with fond memories of summers spent at the family cabin on the Russian River, Greg Dabel wanted his own four sons, now ranging in age from 26 to 36, to be able to have the same wholesome experience growing up with open space. So he set out to find a crop that would at least pay for the land.

Sonoma County Farm Advisor Paul Vossen convinced him to try chestnuts back in 1985. It was that or Christmas trees, which busy Greg rejected as too labor-intensive.

"I was looking for alternative crops, as the Sebastopol apple industry was dying," recalled Vossen, who even planted a test orchard of chestnuts. But the crop really never took off. It wasn't just the economic pressure to grow grapes. Vossen said chestnuts proved to be very susceptible to root rot and need really well-drained soil. The market for chestnuts also is not well-developed.

"You've got to be really creative if you're selling chestnuts. But the Dabels have been," he said.

The family had the vision to snag the Web address chestnutranch.com back when the public was just starting to discover the Internet. So most of their sales have been online, where they sell chestnuts for $5.95 a pound plus shipping.

Chestnuts remain a fairly rare crop all over the U.S. In the 19th century, a fungus brought in from China wiped out the East Coast's old chestnut forests. They're now developing blight-resistant varieties, but the recovery is slow. Greg estimated there are currently about 50 growers of any note around the country.

"Some call it one of the world's worst man-made disasters," Vossen said.

The Dabels have about 4 acres of Colossals, developed from a single tree said to have been brought to California around the time of the Gold Rush. They also maintain about 2,000 apple trees on the 30-acre ranch.

Chestnut fans find their way to Green Valley from all over the Bay Area during harvest. This year the farm is open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays for You-Pickers, who are loaned a bucket and a heavy pair of gloves, and given a discount of $2 a pound.

Tim, who lives in a remodeled farmhouse on the ranch with his wife, Rosie, and four daughters, cautions that chestnuts, like fresh fruit, are perishable and will survive only several weeks refrigerated. But if you're hankering for fresh chestnuts for turkey stuffing or as roasted nibblers at Christmas, freeze them until you're ready to cook them.

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.</i>