Every fall, the limbs of thousands of Missouri eastern black walnut trees release a treasure trove of sustenance. For hundreds of Missouri families, harvesting black walnuts — a wild, native crop — is a tradition spanning generations.
Continuing the Tradition
Every fall, Brent Rutledge, 50, takes a breather from his Cedar County cow-calf operation to harvest the nut crop from his family farm. Once collected, the nuts are delivered to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton where they are processed for sale.
“I remember doing it as a school kid — my mom gave me money for it — and I turned it into a tradition for my own family,” Rutledge said. “It’s something we could do together for a couple of hours after my kids (now college aged) got off the school bus.”
For Rutledge, it’s not a main source of income, but a way to support his extended family — his brothers work at the Hammons plant — and save for Christmas.
Unlike other nut crops that grow in carefully tended orchards, eastern black walnuts grow naturally in the woods, pastures, and yards of the east-central United States. Every fall harvest, Hammons purchases millions of nuts from more than 200 hulling stations in a 12-state area. More than half of those buying stations are in Missouri.
Growing and Processing Black Gold
The trees can be grown either plantation-style or cultivated in the wild. Nuts from improved varieties produce higher yields compared to uncultivated wild trees and are purchased by Hammons Products at a higher rate.
The reasons people hand-forage the crop every fall are diverse, said Brian Hammons,
FFA clubs collect the nuts to raise funds to support their activities. Families use the money to pay for vacations they otherwise couldn’t afford. Parents use it as a way to teach their kids a work ethic. Homeowners just want to be able to mow the yard again.
“I’ve heard all kinds of stories,” Hammons said. “Some people need the money and pick up thousands of pounds every year. The money they earn pays for shoes and winter coats.
They’re very resourceful.”
Stockton grocery store owner Ralph Hammons launched the company in the mid-1940s when he purchased a cracking machine and began to buy the nuts from the locals. Today Hammons is the world’s primary hulling purchaser, processor, and distributor of black walnuts.
The company uses a proprietary process to crack and remove the hard shells. Once separated, the nut meats are sorted, sterilized, and packaged for sale. Every part is used, including the tough outer hull, which is ground into fine pieces and included in products such as abrasive cleansers and exfoliating cosmetics.
The nuts — high in protein, antioxidants, and unsaturated “good” fats — are also distributed via grocery chains such as Walmart, Kroger, Costco, and Sam’s Club. “Ice cream is our big market,” Hammons
Unlike orchard-grown English walnuts, black walnuts have an intense flavor. The company engages in marketing campaigns and social media outreach efforts to educate the public on how to use the nut.
“It’s a bit of an acquired taste,” Hammons said. “But knowledgeable foodies appreciate the flavor, which is complex, bold, and robust. When you get a black walnut, you know you are getting a unique, native Missouri product that has a lot of historic tradition.”
Eastern black walnuts are an alternate bearing crop, which means they produce a larger crop every other year. Some years, the company can only purchase 10 million pounds, other years, up to 30 million pounds are harvested.
“We try to buy as many as we can because the next year there’s a good chance the harvest will be down again,” Hammons explained.
Eastern Black Walnuts’ Untapped Potential
Nuts aren’t the only value eastern black walnuts provide.
The species represents an opportunity for landowners to realize a new stream of revenue — if they are willing to manage stands of the high-value trees and be patient, said Harlan Palm, a walnut tree farmer and member of the National Walnut Council (NWC).
Palm got started in 1973 when he read a Farm Journal article about thieves stealing the trees from Iowa farms.
“I knew then that walnut trees must be worth raising if the value is so great that someone wants to steal them!” he said. He soon purchased 30 acres of forested land in
On Palm’s farm, the previous owner pastured livestock in the creek bottoms. Palm took the farm in a new direction, pruning young, volunteer walnut trees, culling ones with poorer form, and eliminating invasive brush species. Palm has benefited by managing the growth of black walnut trees, and he thinks that, with more knowledge, other landowners also could.
“There’s definitely an untapped potential,” Palm said. “Walnut timber is the most valuable timber you can raise in Missouri.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), walnut timber in the United States is valued at $530 billion.
Current national walnut prices are very good. In 2015 and 2016, the price of high-quality walnut has risen to almost $2,800 per thousand board feet — the highest prices since 1970. The price of “stumpage” — what a logger is willing to pay for a standing tree — is also the highest it’s been since 1990.
When foresters evaluate trees, they look for 17- to 22-feet of relatively straight trunk unencumbered by limbs.
“We’re typically looking for logs without blemishes, knots, or branches,” explained MDC Forest Products Program Supervisor Mike Morris. “And bigger is better because the veneer potential increases with the size of the tree.”
He noted black walnut is Missouri’s most valuable species and the export market particularly to China — is supporting the industry. The U.S. housing market, which uses walnut in higher-end homes for trim, beams, millwork, and flooring, has not rebounded yet from the 2008 crisis, Morris added.
With work and attention, Palm believes landowners could realize a 10-fold increase by pruning saplings to create taller, straighter trees. “If the pruning is done properly, it could be 60 to 65 percent qualifying for veneer-potential, rather than just saw logs for lumber,” he said. “Pruning is essential to increasing value.”
To learn more about pruning techniques, contact MDC’s Forestry Division at mdc.mo.gov or the National Walnut Council (NWC) at walnutcouncil.org.
The Promised Land
Growing black walnut timber can take 50 to 75 years, depending on soil type and landscape, so it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme.
But it can be a way to nurture income for the next generation. Although the prospect is not without work, creating a stand of high quality walnut timber isn’t insurmountable.
And Missouri landowners have an edge. With twice as many eastern black walnut trees as any other state, Missouri is “way out in front in the number of walnut trees,” Palm said.
Why does Missouri lead the nation?
Partly because Missouri’s temperate weather and soil types are well-suited to this valuable, native crop. And partly because the glaciated plains of Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa are so productive, agriculturally, that only rarely has farmland in those regions been allowed to revert to its natural landscape. In
Missouri — where crop farming conditions
are less ideal and agricultural practices have changed over time — small, odd-shaped tracts of cropland and pasture increasingly lie fallow today, Palm said.
“These tracts were farmed for decades, but now are idled because they are too small or too difficult to reach with modern, larger field equipment,” he explained. “The old two-, four and six-row planting and harvesting equipment fit such fields very well in the past. But today’s 60-foot-wide equipment no longer fits.” Harlan has met farmers who felt abashed they no longer farmed areas their grandfathers planted. But when they learn those areas are suitable for growing walnut trees, they’re intrigued, he said.
The Necessary Ingredients
Black walnut trees require full sunlight to thrive and do best on deep, fertile, well-drained soil. Because the seedlings need sunlight, they prefer open areas where the soil has been disturbed, as opposed to dense forests. They like to grow alongside streams and can tolerate inundations for a few days. But they can’t take long-term flooding, so you won’t find them in the vast bottoms of Missouri’s great rivers.
They have a favorite soil type: Hammond or Landis silt loam. Loams are considered ideal for agricultural uses because they retain nutrients and water, while still allowing excess water to drain away.
A unique crop, eastern black walnut trees enjoy a symbiotic relationship with squirrels, since most trees grow from cached nuts. This results in uneven-aged stands of volunteer saplings and resprouts from harvested trees.
“Squirrels are good at planting walnuts, just not in rows,” Palm lamented, noting the animals typically bury them within 75 feet of an established tree.
On good soil, the species competes well with other species and can be fast-growing. Given adequate space and the right soil, they’ll develop spreading canopies and can grow quite tall — up to 80 feet.
Missouri’s native black walnuts offer landowners lots of benefits — the joys of annual nut harvest and the value of a long-term investment. If you’d like to know more about growing eastern black walnuts on your land, call your regional forester.
Do you have black walnut trees on your land?
Would you like to harvest the nuts or have local gatherers harvest them for you? The buying season runs from Oct. 2 through the first week of November. To find buying stations and huller operators near you, call 417-276-5181 or visit black-walnuts.com.
- Eastern black walnuts are prized for their rich, dark heartwood. Not only is the wood moderately heavy and strong for its weight, it’s also exceptionally stable when dry. It machines well — leaving no splinters or rough edges — and is excellent for carving.
- Time is of the essence: The best time to ensure eastern black walnuts become the key component of an eventual timber stand is within five years after conventional agricultural practices have idled, said grower Harlan Palm. To improve their prospect, landowners can simply heel in walnut nuts in the fall or plant seedlings in the spring.
Thousand Cankers Disease (TCD) has not been discovered in Missouri.
But if the disease ever is introduced here, walnut growers fear millions of dollars in economic damage. TCD occurs when thousands of tiny walnut twig beetles attack a tree, feeding on the pale-green phloem tissue beneath the bark. As they tunnel along, the beetles carry the spores of a fungus that quickly creates “cankers,” or inky, coin-sized spots of infection. Branches start to die back, and the tree eventually dies.
To combat TCD, Missouri enacted a quarantine making it illegal to transport all species of untreated walnut wood and any hardwood firewood into Missouri from states where the disease has been detected. Exemptions exist for nuts, finished walnut wood products, and 100 percent bark-free, kiln-dried lumber with squared edges.
One of the first symptoms landowners might notice is die-back from the top of the tree in mid-July through early August. Landowners who have concerns are encouraged to contact their local MDC forester, the forest pest hotline at 866-716-9974, or use the online reporting form at mdc.mo.gov/thousand-cankers.