Missouri is the Epicenter for a Native North American Wild Crop - Black Walnuts

Nov 26, 2019  | 7 min  | Ep4515

The Norman Rockwell imagery of fall included leaves, pumpkins and hunting.

For many of you, your autumn ritual likely encompassed picking up walnuts from the yard before the squirrels did.

The wild American Walnut is native to more than half of the country and an economic opportunity for some entrepreneurs.

Josh Buettner reports in our Cover Story. Producer contact: josh@iptv.org

 

While Midwest farmers harvest row crops, there are autumn foragers who have found another, wilder heartland bounty all it’s cracked up to be.

Brian Hammons/Hammons Black Walnuts: “Black walnuts are really known now as a superfood and they’re getting a lot of attention because of the   nutritional value.”

Brian Hammons is the third generation President and CEO of Hammons Black Walnuts.  His family business has grown and diversified over seven decades to become the sole company of its kind in the nation.

Not to be confused with California’s orchard-grown English variety, black walnut trees are native to North America.

Brian Hammons/Hammons Black Walnuts: “The black walnut has a very wild, bold, rich flavor.  It’s very distinctive. More protein than any other tree nuts, also a high degree of omega three fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, no cholesterol…”

Hammons holds 280 acres with over 5,000 black walnut trees in their portfolio. And though the plant is renowned for its disease resistance - an important component in any commercial production - its alternate varying fruit cycle hampers consistent yields.

So every October 1st, roughly 230 hulling stations in 15 states begin redeeming hand-harvested urban and rural black walnuts for about five weeks. Prices fluctuate, but in recent years, hullers have been able to offer a record high 15 to 16 cents per-pound – and collective harvests can average around 25 million pounds.

Brian Hammons/Hammons Black Walnuts: “These are looking really, pretty good right over here.  It’s going to be really nice…”

Once hulled and bagged, nuts are shipped to Hammons’ headquarters in Stockton, Missouri. Situated at the edge of the Ozarks, the town draws thousands to its annual Black Walnut Festival.

Brian Hammons/Hammons Black Walnuts: “It takes a lot to develop all of the network of buying operations to bring in the wild crop and then to process the nuts to be sure that we’re producing a product that consumers know is safe and is top quality.”

The walnuts are cracked in Hammons’ sophisticated shelling plant, where infrared light and human inspectors sort product.  The company keeps a year’s worth of inventory onsite, in cold storage, or in caves underneath nearby Springfield. 

In addition to nut meat - consumed raw, in culinary dishes and pressed to produce oil and flour - ground up shells are sold for oil filtration, sports turf and industrial abrasives which have been used to blast-clean battleships and the Statue of Liberty.  Also, the hull encasing the shell can be used as fertilizer, ink, and a dietary extract. 

Academia is deeply rooted in the region’s commercial tree crops as well.  Over a century ago, the Show-Me State was a top fruit producer. To this day, Missouri State University’s Fruit Experiment Station in Mountain Grove continues with research and educational outreach.

Dr. Michael Goerndt/Assistant Professor/William H. Darr College of Agriculture - Missouri State University: “When I use the term fruit I refer to nuts, major seeds, most things that comes off of trees.  So yeah, black walnut is considered a fruit in that regard.”

Assistant Professor Michael Goerndt implements agroforestry – the process of incorporating agriculture into an orchard-like setting.  

Branching out at Journagan Ranch, a 3,300 acre working cattle farm gifted to Missouri State a decade ago by philanthropist rancher Leo Journagan, the school is cultivating silvopasture, which integrates forest management, forage and livestock. 

Dr. Michael Goerndt/Assistant Professor/William H. Darr College of Agriculture - Missouri State University: “Kind of a traditional mantra for a lot of foresters when it comes to grazing is to tell landowners not to graze in the forest.  But grazing in the timber in this part of the country is something that’s going to happen.  And it happens a lot.  So do we want it to happen any old way or do we want to come up with a better way of doing it that will be sustainable and actually get dual benefit out of the process?”

Goerndt and ranch manager Marty Lueck are adding more black walnut trees, which among other things provide shade for cattle rotationally grazing across the landscape.

Marty Lueck: “We’re the largest pure bred Hereford herd here in the state of Missouri and then one of the 15th largest in the United States.”

Andy Thomas/Assistant Professor/University of Missouri Southwest Research Center:  “See how much more kernel is in there?”

Like Missouri State, the University of Missouri also is pushing the boundaries of black walnut production through improved variety cultivars – which produce a more reliable, higher quality crop.

Andy Thomas/Assistant Professor/University of Missouri Southwest Research Center:  “A lot of people pick up regular, ordinary black walnuts and sell them to local hullers.  But the price can be anywhere from 9 to maybe 15 cents a pound.  But for the improved walnuts, I can get up to 90, 92 cents a pound.”

Andy Thomas is a Research Assistant Professor at Mizzou’s Southwest Research Center in Mount Vernon. The 900 acre site represents various soil types found on the Ozark Plateau.  Consulting with Hammons, whose current production model is based on a 99 percent wild crop, Thomas has joined hobbyists and landowners who’ve derived over 100 black walnut varieties through selective breeding.

Thinner shells and more nut meat maximizes value per acre, and Thomas touts one hardy strain, Sparrow.

Andy Thomas/Assistant Professor/University of Missouri Southwest Research Center:  “They’re by far the best walnut that I would recommend for farmers to produce for several reasons.  The main reason is that they produce year after year, very reliably, where a lot of walnut varieties produce every other year.”

USDA keeps statistics on almond, pecan and pistachio production, but the federal agency doesn’t furnish numbers for black walnuts.  Hammons’ officials believe the industry reaps over $5 million annually, but for the boss, there’s more to it than just hauling in the specialty crop and refining it for sale.

Brian Hammons/Hammons Black Walnuts: “It’s the people that are involved in this whole process that really makes it worthwhile – folks who pick up black walnuts, folks that make black walnuts a part of their lives.  It’s a natural, wonderful product, and we’re excited to be part of it and looking forward to what the future may hold down the road.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

 

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