Volume VII, No. 1, Fall 1979
HARVESTING BLACK WALNUTS
by Carmen Broyles & Nancy Honssinger, Photos by Joe Jeffery
It's a crisp afternoon and the first tingle of autumn is in the air. The pungent smell of wood smoke blankets the valley, the trees wear flaming colors as bright as a fall bonfire, and the calls of the wildlife and gently falling leaves are the only sounds that break the peaceful silence. I look forward to this time every year when I can put on my oldest clothes, a pair of gloves, take a couple of trusty buckets and spend a quiet day in the country gathering black walnuts. To some it may seem like a back-breaking job, hardly worth the trouble, but I look on it as a good way to enjoy a beautiful day and take time to reflect on the wonders of my favorite season.
I whistle a tune as I bend down and pick up a walnut from the ground. As I roll it around in the palm of my hand, my mind begins to wander to my mom's walnut cake and I can almost smell the rich pungent aroma wafting through the air. A piece of my mom's cake would sure taste good right now--what motivation! My stomach begins to growl and I resume picking with considerably more vigor.
Although I associate walnuts most frequently with such goodies as ice cream and cake, during my grandmother's day walnuts were an important source of additional income to many farmers, housewives, and children. Picking and selling walnuts was a profitable way of getting extra money for Christmas presents or for the children's school supplies. Some families that had many trees on their farm could accumulate quite a sum of money each year. Walnuts were always a plentiful commodity and the profit was just lying there waiting for the taking. Picking and selling the nuts was labor anyone could engage in. Often the poorer families would go all over the surrounding area trying to find trees no one else. wanted to pick from so they could make some extra money to help them through the winter months ahead. Before markets developed and nutmeats were available in small packages, people would pick, hull, dry and crack walnuts for their own home use. When markets began to appear around the 1940's, the nuts still had to be picked, hulled and dried by hand before they could be sold. Now there is much more profit and much less work for the pickers. All the seller has to do is pick the nuts by hand and take them to a huller where machines do all the rest of the work.
Things have certainly come a long way since grandmother's day when walnut gathering was a more complicated and time consuming task. But, if we want to eat our own fresh nutmeats we still have to do as grandmother did, and pick, hull, dry and crack the nuts by hand. One advantage is that today we can keep the nutmeats fresh longer by freezing them so that they are available to use all year round.
The greatest concentrations of black walnut trees are located in the states of Missouri and Arkansas. Walnut trees are native to the rich deep soil of the bottom lands and fertile hillsides. In the days of the early settlers, walnut trees grew abundantly in the hardwood forests. Today the black walnut tree usually stands alone or in small groves in open fields or back yards.
This hardy tree's trunk is covered with heavily furrowed bark, and its branches are laced with shiny green compound leaves that turn yellow in the autumn. At picking time walnut trees are easily recognized because they lose their leaves before most other trees, revealing the green walnuts still hanging on the bare branches. Long catkins appear with the leaves in mid-spring forming clusters of nuts which load the branches each fall. It is not too hard to spot the fairly large nuts after they've fallen, unless they become hidden in the thick lush grass beneath the tree. For home use, most people like to pick near a drive or close to where stock gathers, because there the hulls are usually already knocked off the nuts as a result of the constant traffic.
Except for pecan, black walnut is the most valuable wood in America. During the early days, however, the nuts were as precious as the wood. They contributed to the family's income as well as being a frequent ingredient in their cakes, cookies and breads.
The fruits of the walnut tree are perhaps the richest nuts of any other tree in America. A thick, aromatic pulpy green husk, which turns black and soft when ripe, completely encloses the thick rough surface of the shell and its rather small kernel. The kernel or nutmeat of the black walnut has a distinctive, rich, oily, sweet taste. It is more robust and flavorful than the English walnut.
By the end of September the walnuts usually begin to fall and litter the ground. This is the time when walnut gatherers grab their buckets heading for the nearest trees.
The first and easiest step in the process of gathering walnuts is to single out a location where there seems to be good quality walnut trees. This can be especially important if you plan to sell them to a walnut processor. Picking large, ripe black walnuts instead of those that are still green you will save waste during the hulling process and yield more nutmeats for the labor.
If the trees are nearby, you can easily walk to your destination, but if you're gathering on another person's property it will probably be necessary to take a truck with plenty of room for the bags of nuts. It is also important to get permission to pick and follow any restrictions the owner might have about gathering nuts on his property. We heard about some people who did not follow the owner's directions and paid the consequences. This particular woman had quite a few walnut trees on her land. Every year she picked walnuts from a certain tree for her granddaughter, because they were of higher quality. One year some people came to her house asking permission to pick the walnuts on her property. She agreed they could if they would be sure not to pick up the walnuts under her granddaughter's tree. Even though they agreed to leave the walnuts alone, they didn't. But, as they were leaving, a sack of walnuts fell off the back of the truck and as it turned out, it was the sack of walnuts they had picked from under that particular tree!
After choosing your location, you are ready to work. During the fall months the temperatures are usually cool in the mornings and late afternoons, but toward the middle of the day the sun can become quite hot. Usually avid gatherers that spend all day in the hot sun recommend loose, comfortable clothes--the older the better. Jeans or overalls, along with either a long or short-sleeved shirt, is the most popular dress. Long sleeves do help protect against sunburn, but are not nearly as cool when the sun begins to climb in the sky.
Gloves are necessary to protect the hands from stains. If you do not wear them, the walnuts will leave a dark brownish green stain on your hands along with a very distinctive odor. The stain usually takes days to wear off and in the meantime the scent continues to cling like the odor of onions hangs in the kitchen long after dinner is over.
Walnuts are easiest to pick when the hull is still green, but it's hard not to encounter ripe squishy black ones, no matter what time in the season you pick.
A sturdy container is needed to carry the walnuts, especially if the nuts are still green, since this is when they are the heaviest. Heavy cardboard boxes, buckets and feed sacks are the best choices.
After spending many hours in the sun gathering the nuts, the work is still not over. How much more work you'll do depends on whether you plan to sell the nuts or keep them for your own use. But whether you do it or sell to the walnut processors, the next step is hulling them.
If you have a small amount of nuts for home use, the easiest method of hulling is to dump the nuts on the ground and run over them with a car or truck wheel which mashes the soft hulls but does not crack the hard shell. The nuts can be picked up from the hulls. A more time consuming method is using a hammer to mash the hulls one by one and then remove them with your hands.
For larger amounts of nuts, most people now take them to the nearest walnut buying station that has a huller. The Missouri Farmer's Association and other agri-business firms have the hullers as a service to the community. Last year one MFA paid $5.50 for each hundred pounds of hulled nuts. Larger processing plants like Hammons products in Stockton, Missouri, own their own hullers and also serve the community. It is not uncommon during the fall months, to see incredibly long lines of trucks and cars of all descriptions loaded with sacks of nuts, waiting to be hulled.
The hullers used by the agribusiness firms are simple electric powered machines which use the same principle as those use who run car wheels over the walnuts to hull them. The hulls are mashed with a rotating tire against a hard cage surface. The walnuts are dumped into the first hopper and from there they are taken to the first bin by an elevator belt. In the first bin there is a device that keeps the walnuts tumbling constantly so they will fall into the actual hulling bin. If this particular device wasn't there, the walnuts would clog up in the bin and not feed properly into the tire cage. The actual hulling system is the tire cage, made up of a sixteen inch snow tire in a metal rod cage. The tire spins around in the cage, mashing the walnuts (still in the hull) against the side of the cage. This smashes the hull and removes the walnut without breaking the shell.
Rocks and wire are two obstacles that can ruin this type of huller. If rocks or wire get into the huller they can flatten the tire. A flat tire makes the clearance between the tire and the side of the cage so great, the walnuts come out with the hulls still intact.
When the hulls of the walnut are very green, the unhulled walnuts pile up inside the cage. If this happens, there is no opening for the hulls to fall out of the cage and the unhulled walnuts fall over the top instead of being hulled. The hulls of the ripe walnuts are easier to smash.
After the walnuts have been hulled, whether at home or by a huller, they must be dried before they can be stored or cracked. The excess moisture makes the kernel rancid in a short time. If the shells are not dry the nut will mildew. Some people set a screen on two sawhorses and spread the walnuts out on it. When drying this way you can leave the nuts out overnight and cover them with an oil cloth or sack to keep out the dew and dampness. Commercial industries usually store the walnuts in mesh bags and stack them in a well ventilated warehouse to dry.
When the walnuts are dried, the next step is to crack them and pick out the walnut meats. At home many families work together on this project. They select a comfortable spot and equipped with a hammer and pan begin cracking the nuts, one at a time. The process is rather like working on an assembly line; they take a walnut out of the sack, hit it with a hammer, and then put it in the pan. When they finish, they then sit down with a bowl for the kernels, and using various instruments, pick the "goodies" out of the cracked shells. The most commonly used tools are bobby pins, picks, nail files or horseshoe nails.
It is helpful to spread newspapers under the work area to catch the small pieces of shell and debris accumulated while cracking nuts. The papers can be easily disposed of when the job is done.
The nutmeats are very tedious to pick out because the walnuts are small to begin with and even smaller and harder to hold once they've been cracked. Also, the nutmeats tend to cling tightly to the shell. The easiest method is to pick up half the walnut, and using the bobby pin or other instrument, pick around the inside of the shell until the nutmeat pops out. Although this can be a tedious job, it has its benefits--such as sneaking a bite of the tasty nut as you work. This is a job that can be done while talking, listening to the radio or watching T. V. Often this task was delegated to the children of the family who made a game of it by racing to see who could fill their bowl first.
As soon as they finish picking out the nutmeats, they put them in containers such as quart jars, or plastic containers to use immediately or store. Today most pickers sell the walnuts in the hull, but before commercial processing, some people increased their walnut income by selling hand-picked nutmeats.
THE WALNUT INDUSTRY
Years ago gathering, cracking and hulling your own walnuts was quite a common task. In fact, many families considered it to be just one of the many jobs to do during the fall season. In recent years, however, black walnut harvesting has become a big industry. Hullers were first introduced during World War II and since then there have been many changes in the harvesting process. Now plants can do all the work except gathering the nuts themselves.
First established in 1946 by Ralph Hammons, Hammons Products is now the largest processor of black walnuts. They operate plants in Stockton, Missouri and in Gravette, Arkansas. Except during the Christmas season when they also handle native pecans, black walnuts are the only nuts Hammons processes.
The industry receives walnuts from buying stations in eighteen states with the bulk of the crop coming from Missouri and Arkansas. Normally Hammons buys from twenty to twenty-five million pounds of walnuts a year. This involves thousands of independent people picking up these nuts one at a time.
During the peak of the season each plant employs slightly over one hundred workers. The slow season is during June, July and August. Usually most of the processing is finished early in June, but they may use the summer months to catch up.
The process begins when walnuts are brought into the plant from buying stations on flat bed trucks in open mesh bags. This type of bag permits the air to circulate through the walnuts and keep them from heating and to help them dry out. First, a fork lift unloads the sacks from the trucks and takes them into a building where they clean off any debris on the outside of the shell.
From the cleaner, the walnuts come to the first holding bin where they are dried to a moisture content of six to eight percent. This insures a higher quality nut and longer shelf life of the nutmeats so they won't become rancid as quickly.
After drying, the walnuts are carried into the main building in an overhead bin above the cracking units. The cracking units crack about eighty thousand pounds of walnuts a day. The walnuts are cracked with sets of large steel rollers that are set at a fixed point apart from each other. The rollers crack the walnut as it goes between them. Every walnut goes through at least six pairs of rollers until it is cracked to the desired size.
The cracker is equipped with a cylinder made up of steel plates that have teeth of varying sizes, large to small. Right next to the steel plates there is a sponge rubber roller. As the nutmeat and the shell are fed between the steel cylinder and the rubber roller, the roller will push the nutmeat into the teeth. Since the shell doesn't stick to the metal teeth, it falls down, while the nutmeat comes around the circle and is raked off.
There are different sized graders for each size nutmeat. The graders are screened bins with the screen holes in varying sizes, large to small. As the nutmeats come in, the bins turn and the nutmeats are carried to the bin in which they belong. The sizes range from jumbo, fancy large, large, medium, medium small and ice cream pieces, to granules and bits. Out of every hundred pounds of walnuts shelled the normal yield is only eight pounds of nutmeats.
After the nutmeats are sized, the bad kernels are separated from the good. Hammons uses an electric eye machine which operates on the principle that light reflects and dark absorbs. The nutmeats are put into the machine where they are vibrated down into a bowl which turns at a high rate of speed. By centrifugal force the kernels are thrown out of the bowl onto a disc. This disc picks up the kernels, sends them through the vacuum one at a time, and then brings the kernel around to the photo cell. The photo cell measures the amount of light reflected off the kernel. A very dark kernel is recorded in the brain of the photo cell, and when that nutmeat reaches a certain point, a synchronized air gun will shoot the dark kernel away from the light ones. This gun works on the basis of the light itself. The lighter kernels are of higher quality.
Other nut companies stop when they have removed about ninety-seven percent of all the bad kernels. Since Hammons feels it is still worthwhile to remove the other three percent that the electric eye might have missed, they employ women to pick out the other dark kernels by hand.
Most of the nutmeats from Hammons go out in bulk. Since Hammons is under the Food and Drug Law, all the bacteria that could cause food poisoning has to be eliminated. After the nutmeats are put in boxes, they are rolled into the tanks where the vacuum is turned on, sterilizing the nuts with ethyline-oxide to destroy all bacteria.
Guys and Planters nut companies buy their nutmeats in bulk and then transfer them to their own packages. Using two crews of women, Hammons does some of their own packaging in eight ounce and one pound cello packages under the name "Missouri Dandy," but most of the walnuts go out in bulk, The rest are sold to stores like Safeway and Kroger to package under their own labels. However, since Hammons can package more cheaply, a few of the large chain stores are starting to use Hammons cello packs on the shelf instead of repackaging them.
Hammons ships all over the United States as well as internationally. They ship to Japan, Belgium, India and parts of Africa. They also own cold storage houses from the east to the west coast to better supply their customers.
The nutmeats are used for human consumption in the candy industry, baking industry and of course, the ice cream industry. A few nationally known companies such as Baskin-Robbins and local Ozark dairies, Foremost and Hiland, buy exclusively from Hammons. The dark kernels unfit for humans are sold for livestock feed.
The nut kernel is not the only product of the nut. The shell also has valuable uses. After the nutmeat is extracted from the shell, an air pipe carries the shell through a pipe to the shell plant in a separate building. There the shell goes through a specially built hammer mill that grinds it into pieces before it is run through sieves, screens and aspirators that separate the shell into the six different sizes used in industry. The grain sizes of the shell, varying from large to small, are categorized numerically. They begin with four-six and move down the scale to the smallest, minus one hundred, or those small enough to go through a screen with one hundred mesh to the inch. The shell is shipped in fifty pound bags to many different companies.
The shell is much sought after because of its hardness and versatility. The very first known use of the ground shell was in World War I when it was charcoaled and filtered to make gas masks more porous. The oil industry uses the shell to patch hairline fractures. When the workers hit a fracture in the drilling process, water and shell combined are pumped through a bit to repair the crack.
The shell is used as a carrier for insecticides and fungicides and is used in paint and glue industries. Hammons sells about 300,000 pounds of shell to the dental industry to clean natural and false teeth. The explosives industry uses the shell as a carrier for nitroglycerin.
Jet engines burn a low grade diesel fuel and as it burns carbon builds up on the vats of the turbine engine causing the motor efficiency to go down. The walnut shell, fed into the engine removes carbon buildup without scratching the metal.
The polish extracted from the shell is an abrasive that can be used on jewelry, pen parts or other types of metal to remove residue without scratching. Jewelry or pen parts are put in a tumbler with the shell and tumbled until the desired stage of polishing is reached. Glass in eyeglasses and camera lenses can also be polished with walnut shells.
Even the green hull of the walnut has uses. It is not processed at Hammons, but is used in dying cotton and curing ringworms. One company has developed a cream from the hulls of green walnuts for people who have an allergy to direct sunlight. An extraction taken from the hull can be used in suntan lotion which closes the pores and tans the skin to shade it from the sunlight. Hulls are also used in fertilizer for consumer use. The area to be fertilized must be limed first or the acid from the hulls will kill the grass or plants.
Work is now being done trying to find how to utilize the dried hull, but the economy is not at present able to pay for the processing.
The invention of the huller and the establishment of plants like Hammons has brought us a long way from the "do-it-yourself" black walnut processing of grandmother's day. Once walnuts were simply used as a seasonal source of income for families and as an ingredient in their recipes. Today industry has simplified the process and found a multitude of ways to use all parts of the nut to benefit man. Although this progress has made processing walnuts an easy task, there is still something satisfying to me about taking off on a beautiful fall day to pick walnuts, then bringing them back home and hulling and cracking them by hand as grandmother used to do. And when the task is over, there's nothing like a piece of black walnut cake fresh from the oven to convince me it's worth it.
After walnuts have been processed,
and nutmeats are packaged in cellos
or sturdy bags. (all by Lance Collins)
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.