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Nuts about Nuts
Missouri supplies 70 percent of the world's black walnuts.
There’s something of eternity in the cycle of walnuts. Each fall, they rain down, pebbling the earth under black walnut trees throughout Missouri. The sound of the yellow-green balls hitting the earth makes a remarkably soft thump for such a hard husk. Maybe you’ve stooped to pick the harvest, stained your hands or gloves, and kept a few to sprinkle on oatmeal, ice cream, and salads or to cook into cookies, muffins, and breads. Maybe you or someone you know has even taken walnuts by pickup truck to walnut hulling and collection points throughout the state.
Since long before the first pioneers, the harvest of nut trees has been a part of the American diet. Wild black walnut trees have been cut for furniture, split-rail fences, railroad ties, and other rudimentary uses, but they also drop deeply ridged, rich-tasting nuts in a muffled reminder of a greater cycle dependent on something outside man. Look around. This is what our land produces naturally. In fact, nearly 70 percent of the average world harvest of 25 million pounds of black walnuts per year comes from the wild walnut trees in Missouri, according to the Walnut Council based in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Perhaps for this reason, the American black walnut, also known as the Eastern black walnut, was named the Missouri State Tree Nut in 1989 in part by the effort of a second grade class in Stockton.
Pickup trucks across the state laden with black walnuts head to one of about 125 collection points in Missouri beginning October 1, and 13 dollars per hundred-weight is exchanged for the unique nut found only in our region of the world. The natural range of black walnut trees is broader than Missouri. It stretches east through western Pennsylvania and Virginia, south to eastern Texas, and north to southern Nebraska. Black walnut is even scattered in New York and southern Canada, according to the Walnut Council. But it is here in Missouri where most of the nuts are collected and processed.
The Hammons Products Co. at Stockton is the only commercial processor of black walnuts in the world. Spotless floors display machines with steel drums that crack the super-hard shell much more efficiently than, say, spreading the nuts on the ground and driving over them or smashing them with a hammer while ducking flying shards.
After the nuts have been cured, or dried, for a minimum of two weeks in silos or collection bags stacked out of direct sunlight, darker nutmeats are picked out by hand, and shell bits that eluded infrared lights and shake-out holes are decisively discarded.
A full 45 percent of the volume of processed nuts is made into black walnut ice cream. Another 50 percent becomes packaged nuts for groceries. The remaining nuts are packaged into gourmet food items like black walnut caramels or fudge, walnut brittle, honey gems, and truffles marketed by the Hammons Pantry.
The discarded shells are also marketed by Hammons—six grade sizes in all, from fine to coarse—for use in abrasive cleaners and polish or in the cosmetic and oil industries. There’s little waste in the nut business.
The average crop harvest is usually about 25 million pounds. But the late freeze in the spring of 2007 in the Midwest nearly wiped out acorn production, therefore squirrels—the main competitor for the nuts, grabbing them out of trees before they fall where we can nab them—were predicted to be more aggressive and reduce human harvest to between 10 and 12 million pounds. Even with the average yield, which is six to seven pounds of kernel yield per 100 pounds of in-shell nuts, that’s still a lot of nutmeat.