Black walnut tree (Juglans nigra)

Black walnut tree
(Juglans nigra). Credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont

By Jack Wax

Virtually every black walnut that makes its way to any grocer’s 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 major companies that used to crack black walnuts have long since disappeared, partly due to the difficulty of relying on an inherently fluctuating crop.

Brian Hammons in the black walnut orchard adjacent to the Hammons Products Company headquarters in Stockton, Mo.

Brian Hammons in the black walnut orchard adjacent to the Hammons Products Company headquarters in Stockton, Mo. Credit: Jack Wax

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. A network of 250 hulling stations scattered throughout 16 Midwestern states makes the harvest possible. Anyone with a five-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.”

At a hulling station near Glasgow, Mo., two nut harvesters unload their afternoon’s work.

At a hulling station near Glasgow, Mo., two nut harvesters unload their afternoon’s work. Credit: Jack Wax

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 to be 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 20,000-square-foot operation. An assortment of computerized and laser-equipped stainless steel machinery transforms the harvested nuts into packaged foods. The nuts are cleaned, then dumped into a giant nutcracker that pops them open. Nutmeat is separated from shell, sorted by size and inspected by machines and humans before being packaged and boxed. The bits of shell are saved and sold to industrial customers who use them in a variety of ways — as an abrasive for cleaning and cosmetics, as a sealing agent in oil wells and as filtration media to separate oil from water.

At Hammons Products Company, 25 million pounds of walnuts are processed each year. This machinery is part of the sorting process that separates nut pieces based on their size.

At Hammons Products Company, 25 million pounds of walnuts are processed each year. This machinery is part of the sorting process that separates nut pieces based on their size. Credit: Jack Wax

It’s a business that is built on three generations’ worth of knowledge about walnuts. It also depends on Hammons’ understanding of tree biology, weather patterns and the economy. Wild black walnut trees are alternate bearing — meaning that a good crop of nuts is produced every other year. To ensure that he can meet the growing demand for black walnuts during lean years as well as plentiful ones, Hammons dries and sets aside a portion of the harvest in strong years.

Although the supply of black walnut trees is holding steady, Hammons says that any increase in demand for nuts will require the growth of profitable commercial orchards. To create a path for growth, he promotes and participates in research that is developing improved nut-bearing black walnut trees. At an orchard 13 miles outside of Stockton, he monitors progress on commercially grown trees — cultivated through traditional methods of cross-breeding and grafting — that have proven themselves viable at the University of Missouri’s Center for Agroforestry in New Franklin, about 150 miles north of Stockton. This joint research project is already yielding results, with some cultivars producing nuts with a ratio of 38 percent nutmeat to shell — three to four times more than the wild variety.

A typical harvest of black walnuts before processing. Anyone with a brown paper sack or a five-gallon bucket can sell their harvest at one of Hammons’ hulling stations.

A typical harvest of black walnuts before processing. Anyone with a brown paper sack or a five-gallon bucket can sell their harvest at one of Hammons’ hulling stations. Credit: Jack Wax

Maintaining the economic viability of black walnuts isn’t just good for business — it’s good for the wild trees as well, bolstering recognition and preservation of the tree. Says Hammons, “New trees are growing up and people in the area where the nuts are strong recognize the value of the nuts and will leave their black walnut trees to grow, hoping someday they’ll have a good [harvest].”

The future of black walnuts as a wild resource, a food and an industry depends in part on Hammons and the university convincing potential nut farmers that commercial orchards make good economic sense. Considering that Hammons estimates it takes about a decade from planting a black walnut orchard to seeing significant crops of nuts, the future will most likely involve a young man whose office is down the hall from his own. That office is occupied by David Hammons, currently the vice president of marketing, who represents the fourth generation of the first family of black walnuts.

Jack Wax is a freelance writer, graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and occasional black walnut harvester.