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Brian Hammons, president of Stockton-based Hammons Products Co., says marketing efforts target younger cooks. The company posted revenues of $10.2 million in fiscal 2010 and expects a 10 million-pound harvest this year.
Brian Hammons, president of Stockton-based Hammons Products Co., says marketing efforts target younger cooks. The company posted revenues of $10.2 million in fiscal 2010 and expects a 10 million-pound harvest this year.

Business Spotlight: A Nutty Tradition

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Black walnut shells are tough. And Hammons Products Co. in Stockton is just as tough, riding out more than six decades of black walnut production.

Hammons Products President Brian Hammons says 65 percent of the global black walnut harvest each year comes from Missouri. The majority of the black walnuts grow in the wild, have a stronger flavor than English walnuts and are largely used as ingredients in recipes.

The family owned business was founded during an era when most women stayed at home and baked traditional recipes for the holidays. Hammons says the company’s new marketing efforts target younger cooks who can use the nuts in year-around cooking.

“We’re developing new recipes and trying to get future generations interested in using black walnuts in their cooking,” Hammons says.

The company that got its start when TV was in its infancy is going to the Internet. Hammons is developing a new black walnut recipe site, spots for Internet cooking sites and a video for YouTube, and it has its own Facebook page and Twitter account. Some of the new recipes include black walnut wild rice and black walnut pork chops.

The efforts come at a time when Hammons has experienced a decline in revenues to $10.2 million in fiscal 2010 from $11.6 million in 2009. Hammons typically employs about 85 during the height of the harvest, but the staff will be trimmed to fewer than 80 this year, he says.

The black walnut season begins Oct. 1 and lasts about five weeks. Hammons Products operates 250 buying stations in 14 states, but many of the stations are located in the Ozarks. Most black walnuts are still harvested by hand.

“It’s really a cultural phenomenon,” Hammons says. “We have people tell us that their families have been harvesting black walnuts for generations.”

Once the black walnuts reach the stations, they are hulled, leaving a hard outer shell. The nuts are then weighed. The price per 100 pounds depends on the crop and inventory, but the company this year expects to pay $11 per hundredweight, or $60 to $80 per pickup load.
Hammons says some harvesters have reported earning $2,000 in a season.

The company expects this year to be a cyclical down year in harvest. In 2008, the company purchased its third-largest harvest, 38 million pounds. The harvest was down to 16 million pounds in 2009, mainly due to the overstock from 2008. Hammons is projecting a 10 million pound harvest this year. “We’ll still have enough for our customers,” Hammons says.  

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, founded the company in 1946 when he began cracking and selling Missouri Dandy black walnut meats. Hammons’ father, Dwain, was the second-generation president and retired in 1999. Hammons’ son, David, 25, is the fourth generation to work in the company and is the company’s marketing director.

About 70 percent of the company’s sales are in the nut meats. The meats are sold under brand names such as Diamond and Planters. Approximately 45 percent of nut-meat sales are to companies such as Hiland Dairy, Blue Bell, Yarnell’s and Baskin-Robbins, which produce black walnut ice cream.

“(Hammons Products is) utilizing a natural resource,” says Greg Helbig, quality control manager for Hiland Dairy Foods. “We have a healthy, natural product, and that makes our companies compatible.”

Hammons also crushes the shells for industrial cleaners and plugging cracks in the rocks at oil well sites. The ground shells make up about 25 percent of Hammons sales and the remaining 5 percent are catalog sales.

The company’s marketing budget has increased by 50 percent this year, and Hammons has increased the travel budget and tradeshow budgets as well. Through current marketing efforts, Hammons worked with bakeries in Chicago and St. Louis to develop and test new black walnut recipes. “Those tests generated a lot of publicity on WGN and WLS television in Chicago,” says Paul Wannenmacher, owner of Springfield-based Wannenmacher Advertising, which handles marketing for Hammons Products.

Hammons is preparing a spot for The Food Channel, an Internet food site, and the Cooking Channel, a TV spin-off for the Food Network.

“We are presenting the black walnut as an All-American, wild, sustainable crop,” says Brooke Dizmang, the creative services associate at Wannenmacher who wrote a 30-second ad. “It’s set in a modern kitchen with a younger woman looking for interesting ingredients to wow and impress.”

The spots will air during National Black Walnut Month in October.

With the marketing campaign, increased sales this summer to ice cream producers and an effort to develop a market in China, Hammons is hopeful the company will grow 2011 sales by 10 percent.

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