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Black Gold: Multimillion-dollar industry grows on Mo. trees

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In the Ozarks, money does grow on trees.

The Show-Me State is home to at least 42 million black walnut trees, according to estimates by the Missouri Department of Conservation, representing a multimillion-dollar industry through wood and nut harvesting.

Ready for harvest starting Oct. 1, black walnuts may be the little nut that could. A relatively niche market due to their strong flavor and extra hard shell that makes them unsuitable for tableside cracking, the nut has made its way out of the Midwest, starting to take hold in areas such as China and across Asia.

But while the trees grow in the Midwest and Canada, black walnuts are synonymous with the Ozarks. According to the University of Missouri Extension, around 65 percent of the annual wild nut harvest in America comes from Missouri. For many families, it’s a tradition.

“It’s a way of life around here,” said Jerry Letterman, owner of Letterman Feed Inc. in Conway and a local black walnut huller. “We see the same families year after year. Chances are, if you grew up in the Ozarks, you picked up walnuts as a kid. Nobody just leaves money lying on the ground.”

Letterman Feed is one of 215 hulling stations across 11 states for Stockton-based Hammons Products Co., which leads the nation in black walnut processing.

A purveyor of all things black walnut, the third-generation family company processed 9.5 million pounds of nuts last year and generated $14 million in revenue.

“Last year was a short year,” said President Brian Hammons, noting the company typically processes 24 million pounds annually. “We’ve done as high as 49 million and as low as 3 million – it all depends on the weather.”

Utilizing everything from the tree wood, to the nut husk, hull and nutmeat, black walnuts are big business in the Ozarks.

Independent hullers
With hulling machines furnished at no charge by Hammons Products, roughly half operate in the Ozarks. In the hulling business for 38 years, Letterman started the service as a side project for his wife thinking it would bring in a few thousand pounds. The huller brought in 5,600 in the first week.

“People were hungry for it,” he said, adding nut collectors were paid $3 per 100 pounds of dehusked nuts that first year.

In 2014, nut prices hit an all-time high, with hullers paying out $14 per 100 pounds. Letterman estimates in a good year, he brings in 300,000–400,000 pounds of black walnuts, with Hammons paying huller operators around $18.50 per 100 pounds, plus hauling fees.

“A (semitrailer) load holds 26 pallets, 48 bags per pallet with each bag having about 55 pounds of nuts,” Letterman said. “That’s about 55,000 pounds per load and I get about $500 for hauling it.”

In a typical year, Letterman brings in $10,000 or more for his efforts, but profit isn’t always in the equation.

“Some years it’s cost me money to buy,” he said, noting he’s shelled out as much as $1,000. “By the time you pay for the electricity and the labor to get rid of the hull, if it’s a down year for nuts like last year, you’re going to lose.”

Letterman knows it’s a gamble each year, but one thing is certain – he’s going to have a lot of husk waste to get rid of. While the Conway farmer spreads the waste on his fields, Mark and Jeanne Luttrell sell theirs for a profit. The husband-and-wife team have operated a Hammons huller near Brookline for 11 years.

“I used to spread it on my fields, too, but last year a man from St. Louis asked me if he could buy it,” Mark Luttrell said, noting he sold the freshly shorn husks for 0.3 cents a pound.  “I believe he was using it as a cleanser; it has a lot of herbal uses.”

According to WebMD, black walnut husk is used to treat intestinal problems, snakebites, open wounds, ulcers, herpes, cold sores, athlete’s foot and scurvy, among others. It also can be used as a natural hair dye.

During last year’s shortage, Luttrell only collected 97,000 pounds, but he’s had as much as 500,000 and brings in up to $20,000 a year.

“Black walnuts are a wild crop, so these independent operators are essential to us,” said Tom Rutledge, vice president of nut production for Hammons Products. “We spend the summers setting up hullers at feed stores and with individuals across the area.”

About half of Hammons’ crop comes straight from the Ozarks and its 75 employees shell the nuts year-round.

Black walnuts abroad
In 2011, Hammons was part of a Gov. Jay Nixon-led convoy to China, with hopes of black walnuts taking hold in the Asian market.

“China has a big consumption base for tree nuts,” Hammons said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, China bought 83 million pounds of American-grown pecans in 2009, and in 2010 the country became the top foreign buyer of American almonds. Nixon’s delegation signed a $4.4 billion trade deal with the country with expectations of exports – including black walnuts – surging over the next three years. Exports peaked in 2012 at $1.14 billion but fell to $872 million by 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Foreign Trade Division.

“We are still working on that,” Hammons said. “The Chinese like a snack nut; they like to crack them. Black walnuts are an ingredient nut. It hasn’t taken off like we hoped, but there are still opportunities.”

For now, Hammons Products is concentrating on domestic growth and looking to grow its wild crop. About 70 percent of the company’s sales are in the nutmeats sold under brand names such as Diamond and Planters. Of that portion, roughly 40 percent is used in ice cream by Hiland Dairy, Blue Bell, Baskin-Robbins and others.

Not just for eating
The company also utilizes the ultra-hard shell remnants as a supplemental source of revenue, selling the hull for use in the production of abrasives.

“We grind them into six different sizes,” Hammons said. “They can be used for everything from jet engine cleaners to oil drilling equipment.”

The density and texture of the shell particles make them a unique scouring ingredient, which is purchased by companies worldwide for cleaning, scrubbing and filtration products. Closer to home, the shells were used for blasting in the renovation of the Lofts at Jordan Creek at National Avenue and Chestnut Expressway.

“The shell is about 55 percent of the nut,” Hammons said. “The yield on a black walnut is very low in terms of food consumption, so it only makes sense to try and use the other parts.”

Black walnut wood also is highly valuable and often used in furniture. It takes roughly 60 to 80 years for a tree to reach full maturity, but the timber can bring returns of more than $1,000 to $3,000 for a high-quality tree. Tree poaching becomes a threat as timber prices rise. “It’s always wise to keep an eye on black walnut trees,” Hammons said, “both for the nuts and the wood.”

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