PHOTO: Frank Hyman
Frank Hyman
August 21, 2020

There aren’t many crops from which one can harvest five entirely different products. But the black walnut can fill that order.

  • If you’re not eating the nutmeat out of hand or in cookies, then you’ve had it in ice cream.
  • The shell is tough enough for vendors to sell to auto companies for cleaning precision metal engine parts and as filler for sticks of dynamite.
  • The soft, greenish-black hull that surrounds the freshly fallen nut is valuable for fertilizer and making dyes.
  • Once the tree is at least 12 inches in diameter, you can tap it for sap from which to make sweet syrup.
  • And before the end of the tree’s useful nut-dropping life, its trunk can be milled into more than $10,000 worth of veneer or planks.

Depending on the cultivar and conditions, you’ll have to wait 40 to 80 years from planting to harvest for that high dollar lumber, but the good news is that in the eastern half of the United States, there are many thousands of wild black walnuts already dropping edible, salable nuts every September.

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Here are 5 wild nuts that you can forage this fall.


Hulls

Anyone who has handled black walnuts in their hulls has come away with brownish-black stains that don’t want to go away. But the right tools can make all the difference.

The Nut Wizard, which sells for about $50, gathers nuts while still in their hulls. At the end of its long handle, a sphere of stiff but flexible wires rolls on the ground. Walnuts can push their way in—without tumbling out—until you flex the wires over a bucket.

With enough nuts gathered to fill your buckets or truck bed, choose a method for hull removal. For small quantities, cut a 1 1/2-inch circle in a piece of wood that fits over a bucket. With gloves on, set the hull over the hole. Pound it through with a hammer to peel off the hull.

For large quantities, you could use a modified, tractor-mounted lime spreader to strip hulls. Or go lower-tech: Spread them on a concrete driveway and run over them.

Or go medium-tech: Fabricate a small motor-driven tire that smooches the husks off in a rebar cage. This homemade gizmo is found in a 16-page document on managing black walnuts from the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.

Hammons also runs about 200 buying stations in 15 states in the central U.S. for gathering black walnuts from small growers and gatherers.

At home, hulls can be used for dyes or tinctures. Otherwise, compost them for a year to break down the chemical that suppresses growth of some plants around black walnuts.

Rinse the de-hulled nuts with a hose or in a container full of water. Toss any that float. Spread the rinsed nuts someplace where they can dry for a month or two. This will improve the flavor as opposed to cracking them open right away.

black walnut forage farm business sell
Frank Hyman

Nutmeats & Shells

Black walnut nutmeats can be more difficult to harvest than pecans and hickories. However, the flavor makes it worthwhile, and if you already have the trees on your land, there’s no sense letting them go to waste once you have a better understanding of their worth.

For example: Their 25 percent protein content makes 1 pound of nuts equal to 5 pounds of eggs, 9 1/2 pounds of milk or 4 pounds of beef, according to the Acornucopia Project.

Wild black walnuts may only have about 15 to 20 percent meat per nut, but cultivated varieties have 30 percent nutmeats or better and are easier to shell. So solicit cultivar choices from your local extension agent or local growers if starting a plantation. Oikos Tree Crops has some improved varieties.

A mature stand of trees can produce 1,500 to 2,000 pounds per acre. Selling to a buying station may only earn 50 cents a pound, but selling retail at market can bring up to $12 a pound.

At home, if you’re shelling small quantities, set the end of a nut on a hard surface and whack the top end with a hammer. Some people have success using vice-grips (a/k/a, the wrong tool for every job!).

If you want to get through larger quantities more quickly, use tools designed for nut cracking. Black Walnut Cracker sells different models priced from $35 to almost $500. They also sell nut wizards—both hand-held and tow-behind for riding mowers—for gathering fresh nuts.

If you’re not using the shelled nuts right away, save them in the freezer. On the home front, there aren’t a lot of uses for the shells except perhaps as fire starters and compost as described earlier for hulls.


Consider growing a nut orchard to provide your own healthy protein.


Syrup

Sugar maples up north aren’t the only source for sweet syrup to put on pancakes. All other maples and several nut trees produce a sweet-enough sap. However, the sugar content is not high enough to make them commercially viable.

For a backyard project, though, black walnuts can be tapped the same way you’d tap a sugar maple. I’ve tapped a neighbor’s 30-inch diameter black walnut in sunny North Carolina for a few gallons of clear-as-water sap and cooked it down to several ounces of delicious syrup.

But I think there may well be a commercially viable option. Instead of cooking the sap all the way down to syrup, try using a refractometer to get to the level of sweetness of simple syrup. You’ll have a lot more volume at much less expense.

Then label it as simple syrup and sell it to your local fancy-shmancy mixologist (aka bartenders). I’m sure they would love to offer it to their regulars as an “artisanal, locavore, sustainably harvested, black walnut simple syrup” for their fancy cocktail at an inflated price.

Lumber

Air-dried black walnut lumber has streaks of green, gold and bronze in addition to the usual browns and purples that dominate in kiln-dried wood. Allowing it to air-dry takes longer, of course, but that more colorful walnut has an even higher value for woodworkers.

High demand for this marvelous wood means that the availability of the lumber has been in a long-term decline. This makes it perfect for the landowner who thinks about long-term payback.

If you have very well drained land that doesn’t dry out, you may be able to grow a stand of black walnuts that can be harvested at an outrageous price in 40 to 60 years. It likes a pH of about 6.5 and plenty of phosphorus.

If you want to focus on lumber harvest, you would choose an appropriate cultivar and plant them on a 10-by-10-foot spacing so more than 400 trees per acre would grow straight and tall. Alternatively, an emphasis on nuts would call for a 30-by-30-foot spacing thinned down to 60-by-60-foot over time.

It’s best to plant in spring with 3-year-old saplings that are about 3-feet tall. They should be supported by stakes and protected from critters by shelters, until they get about 10-feet tall.

Bruce Thompson, the author of Black Walnut for Profit, figures that a well-managed acre of trees could earn about $100,000 just from lumber—not counting all the other products this tree gives.



Sidebar: The Nuttery

Black walnuts are delicious and nutritious, but the time, cost and effort to remove the hull, clean them and shell them keeps walnuts from taking their proper place in the market. The same could be said for other nut crops such as hickories, mockernuts and acorns.

But long-time orchardist Bill Whipple has a solution that he calls, with tongue-in-cheek, the Acornucopia Project. The project’s website states, “The Acornucopia is 10 percent nuts and 90 percent crazy people.”

Whipple and his colleagues aim to build the processing infrastructure to make tree nuts more profitable: first in the Southeast, then nationally. They’ve set up 20 sites across the southeast for aggregating those crops from farmers and foragers.

Those crops are then carried to what they call the Nuttery in Asheville, North Carolina.

Like the old-time grain mills that wheat farmers depended on, the Nuttery is like a nut mill that returns 60 percent of the final weight of unsorted nuts and shells. They keep 40 percent of what you bring in as their fee.

Using second-hand tools, modified equipment and Rube Goldberg devices of their own making, Whipple and friends turn these tree crops into popular value-added products such as oil, butter, cream and flour.

Their “bread and butter,” as Whipple says, are acorns. Mast from white oaks make a choice flour. Acorns from black and red oaks are too bitter for flour, but their 30 percent oil content—comparable to sunflower seeds—makes them valuable for unexpected tree products: salad oil and cooking oil.

To learn more, check out their website and ask them to make a presentation to your group. That’s what they call their Quercus Circus. You’re guaranteed to learn a lot about some undervalued crops and get a few laughs at no additional charge.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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