Magazine article American Forests

A Wild Crop AND Backyard Harvest

Magazine article American Forests

A Wild Crop AND Backyard Harvest

Article excerpt

VIRTUALLY EVERY BLACK WALNUT THAT MAKES ITS WAY TO ANY GROCERS SHELF gets there via Stockton, Mo., the unofficial, but incontestable black walnut capital of the world. The head of state of this capital is 55-year-old Brian Hammons, third-generation president and CEO of Hammons Products Company.

In an average year, Hammons oversees the processing of 25 million pounds of black walnuts. In the small world of nut-cracking operations, Brian Hammons is the last man standing. The other 10 maj or companies that used to crack black walnuts have long since disappeared, partly due to the difficulty of relying on an inherently fluctuating crop.

Unlike English walnuts ( Juglans regia) that are cultivated in orchards in California, where the growing conditions are just right for these trees native to southeastern Europe, the North American native black walnut ( Juglans nigra) is mostly a wild crop that grows in fields, forests and urban landscapes. The trees are as likely to be planted by squirrels abandoning nuts as by intention. Across its natural range throughout much of the Midwest and eastern U.S., the black walnut crop would rot in the field without the help of the thousands of amateur nut-gatherers, who trade in their nuts for cash to Hammons.

Although Hammons runs a multimillion-dollar family business - employing about 85 people in Stockton - his impact extends far beyond the economy and food industry. Each year, thousands of people get a little closer to nature and develop a deeper appreciation of our relationship to trees because of Brian Hammons and the unique way his company operates. "We rely on people picking up a wild crop each year," he says. Anetwork of 250 hulling stations scattered throughout 16 Midwestern states makes the harvest possible. Anyone with afive-gallon bucket or a brown paper sack can pick black walnuts off the ground near their home and sell them at the nearest Hammons hulling station. "For some people, the money is important. Others are trying to teach lessons to their kids about taking care of resources," says Hammons. "There's nothing like a beautiful October day with nuts on the ground, and you go out in a pickup with the kids and grandkids. Those are memories that connect people."

The 250 hulling stations, each operated by a local contractor, can be found mostly in small towns or on farmland just outside city limits. A trip to any of the stations is an entertaining lesson in old-fashioned ingenuity. The contraption that removes the walnuts' smooth, green husks looks like a cross between an old-time hay baler and a thresher. Turn it on and feed it a bushel of walnuts, and it lets out a high-decibel clattering that sounds like a giant corn popper loaded with metal ball bearings instead of corn. After a few moments, it starts spitting out nuts, still in their wrinkly, brown shells, while the green-skinned husks travel a conveyer belt tobe dumped in a pile. The husks, which make good fertilizer, are usually spread on nearby fields. The nuts are bagged and stored on site until shipment to Stockton is arranged.

Hammons Products Company is located a block off" Stockton's main square. Unlike the low-tech hulling stations, the main offices and processing center are part of a sophisticated 20,0 00-square-foot operation. An assortment of computerized and laser-equipped stainless steel machinery transforms the harvested nuts into packaged foods. …

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