A Nutty Adventure: Enjoying A Mast Year For Acorns 

It's a mast year for acorns, but why we don't eat these nuts? Zach Loeks set out on a longboard to find the sweetest oaks with hopes of planting more trees with better flavor.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: yujie/Adobe Stock

It’s a mast year for oaks, and we have a magnificent crop of acorns this year where I live in central Manitoba! It’s also a great time to see if we can improve upon the genetics of these trees for human consumption. Usually, acorns are considered too bitter for eating and require special preparation. But some types (some even from individual trees) prove to be more sweet, larger and less bitter. 

There are a lot of reasons we’d consider creation of a more edible acorn highly desirable. Oaks have inherent value for hardwood lumber, shade on the farm for livestock, windbreaks, habitat for native species and more. The various tree species are drought resistant and can tolerate a variety of soil and environmental conditions. They grow across North America, and we all have some varieties we call native to our home region! 

Acorns as Food?

With all these oaks, it’s fair to wonder why there isn’t a commercial acorn industry. The answer: We haven’t selectively bred oaks for food. 

But … why not? The main reason is the crop’s inconsistency, as a mast year (or bumper crop) for acorns only occurs every two to five years. 

Another chief factor is the acorn’s bitterness, though some types of oaks—white oaks mainly, like swamp, Oregon and Burr—do have sweeter flesh. Most acorns can be rendered sweeter with processing, but a sweet acorn right off the tree is much better for the future of this perennial food crop.

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A Citizen Initiative 

So this fall, in honor of the bumper crop of acorns, I have taken to the streets on my longboard to collect acorns from choice trees across urban Winnipeg. I am identifying the size, abundance and sweetness of acorns from individual trees and groves, and my team and I are logging this data in our Edible Biodiversity database.

Any grove or tree of particular importance gets a unique ID number. We then make record of the quality and quantity of the acorns. 

Did I mention how fun this scientific endeavor is? I am skating the streets on a Cruiser skateboard—a shorter profile than my usual longboard but with a wide and sturdy 9.9-inch deck. This allows me to easily make distance between trees in good time and provides the stability to carry my acorn-collecting bag over my shoulder. I can also swap the shorter deck onto my back when I move between the oaks in a grove. 

We can be serious about improving food accessibility while also doing things we enjoy.

mast year oak oaks acorns
Zach Loeks

A Good Oak

So far, I have found some exceptional oaks both in parks and along streets, especially on the west side of the city. Of these we have chosen three groves that exhibit particular sweetness. These will be sorted and high graded to plant out across the city in micro-living laboratory projects. 

What do I look for in a good oak grove? First, I note if the trees look healthy. I also look for dead branches in the canopy. I record the size of the trees and if they are producing a large crop from a smaller or older tree. I also note the following:

  • average size of the acorns
  • if the caps come off easily
  • presence and amount of insect holes in the acorns
  • acorn sweetness both raw and processed 

Keep posted for more nutty edible biodiversity adventures! 

Grow On, Zach 


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