Each fall, trucks loaded with 15,000 tons of black walnuts roll into Hammons Products Co. in Stockton, Mo., where the Hammons family has been buying, shelling and selling the flavorful wild nuts for more than 60 years.
“The black walnut is a wonderful resource, a gift of nature that provides some income to thousands of people,” says Brian Hammons, 46, president of the nation’s only commercial black walnut processor.
In 1945, Brian’s grandfather Ralph Hammons, who ran a small grocery and feed store in Stockton, bought 3 million pounds of black walnuts from across Missouri and shipped them by rail to a Virginia nut processor. When the Virginia company went out of business the following year, Hammons bought a nut-cracking machine and opened Hammons Products.
“Dad decided if he could buy the nuts and save the freight, he could make a go of it,” says Ralph’s son, Dwain Hammons, 74, now retired.
During its first year in business, Hammons Products employed six workers and processed 100,000 pounds of black walnuts. Ralph tirelessly traveled across the United States to sell his product to grocery store owners. v Today, the company processes about 30 million pounds of walnuts each year, and with 90 workers, is the largest employer in Stockton (pop. 1,960), which celebrates its status as “The Black Walnut Capital of the World” with the Black Walnut Festival each September. Year-round, locals enjoy black-walnut ice cream and other walnut-laden desserts at Hammons’ retail store.
Through the decades, the company’s shelling equipment has become more automated, but the old-fashioned harvesting ritual hasn’t changed. Armed with buckets and bags, folks pick up the green-husked walnuts from yards, fencerows and fields, and sell them at one of 250 hulling stations in 15 states from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. While Missouri trees account for 65 percent of the crop, black walnut trees grow throughout much of the eastern United States.
“I love the harvest and the people we deal with,” says Tom Rutledge, who buys walnuts for Hammons. “It’s the full spectrum of people, from little kids who are real excited about picking them up to older people who love to be outside and who need the money.”
Patti and Richard Williams, of Greenfield, Mo., earn about $200 each October gathering and selling walnuts. “My husband gets disability and we really count on this,” says Patti, 66. “Walnut money buys propane and groceries.”
Joseph Ball, 11, is an enthusiastic harvester on his family’s farm in Cabool, Mo. “It’s fun and I like the smell of walnuts,” says Joseph, who asked Santa Claus for a walnut huller when he was 7. Brian Hammons learned about the unusual wish, and several of his employees built a miniature hand-cranked working walnut huller for the boy.
“It’s still his favorite toy,” says Joseph’s mother, Patty Ball.
Last year, harvesters earned $13 per 100 pounds of hulled walnuts. After the green hulls are removed at the buying stations, the walnuts are trucked to Stockton for shelling. The nuts are dried, cleaned and crushed in machines that separate the kernels from the shells. Discarded shells are ground and sold for industrial uses, including abrasives for automobile polish and face scrubs.
Hammons sells the nutmeats to ice-cream makers, such as Blue Bell and Haagen-Dazs, and to other companies that sell black walnuts under their own brands to home bakers, who pay about $1.75 for a 2-ounce bag.
“It’s a tough industry,” Brian says about the black walnut business that three generations of his family have built from the ground up. “There’s a whole lot of shell and just a little bit of goody meat.”
Then he adds with a smile: “But that goody meat is very tasty. It’s very worthwhile.”