Black Walnuts: Pennies From Heaven
Written By | Neil Shelton
Here at Exclamation Pointe, autumn is a tranquil time when the subtle shift in the winds and the gradual drop in the temperatures, foretell of winter to come and turn our minds toward thoughts of the natural circle of life; of death and rebirth. We relax after the long summer to enjoy the harvest and to bask in these peaceful moments.
Peaceful that is, until the Black Walnuts start to fall, and then it’s every man for himself as each wayward gust of wind brings, instead of memories of summer and youth, rather six, ten, or a dozen of the fragrant green missiles pelting down upon us, crashing onto the roof in a near-constant barrage, clogging the gutters and downspouts, terrorizing pets and livestock, and covering the lawn and sidewalk with the best opportunities for broken bones or dislocated discs that we’ll get until the next ice storm makes its way into our neighborhood.
In only a few days, our once-inviting lawn is strewn with the tennis-ball-sized nuggets, and they just… keep… coming… so that as we sprint to the truck from the house hoping to avoid the falling walnut hazard, we run with one eye focused on the tree-tops and one on the ground, so as to maintain our balance over the sea of nuts that stretches out before us.
That, of course, is because we’re lucky enough to have several large, mature Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra) growing in our yard.
If this doesn’t sound like such good luck to you, then let me assure you that, ruined rumps and crushed coccyges notwithstanding, anyone is fortunate who has several Black Walnut trees on his or her property.
That’s because, while Black Walnuts seed themselves easily from the millions of nuts that fall to earth, like most nut trees, they are especially slow-growing, and it takes quite a while for them to mature sufficiently to bear nuts.
Even though some seed production may occur on trees grown in the open, under ideal conditions (deep, well-drained, nearly-neutral soils that are generally moist and fertile) they don’t usually begin to produce prolifically until they reach 20 or 30 years of age, continuing for another 100 years or so thereafter.
So why should you care even the slightest about when nut production begins? Read on.
In its distribution range, there is no wild tree growing on the homestead that will produce more cash per acre for the landowner than the Black Walnut.
To note the most apparent value first, these trees produce the most precious hardwood available from native American sources; a single tree of sufficient girth, height, and straightness as to be suitable for veneer production can yield the landowner upwards of a thousand dollars in logs because the dark, dense hardwood is prized above all others for its beauty, hardness, and durability. The wood is used for fine furniture of all kinds and for interior paneling, specialty products, and gunstocks.
The trouble with that is that, in order to take advantage of this value, one obviously has to cut down the tree; quite a loss since Black Walnut has many other virtues beyond being a mere timber source.
For example, it was a given among old-timers (who paid attention to such things in the days before air conditioning) that the shade from the walnut was cooler and more comfortable than that of other, lesser species. Given sixty or seventy years to spread its boughs in the open sun, a single Black Walnut tree may produce a crown 80 or 100 feet across the lawn, and the delicate compound leaves produce dense shade while allowing heat to travel upward through the tree.
However, the most noteworthy and traditional value provided by Black Walnut comes from the nuts, which enjoy a reliable and lucrative market every year. So, if you have the good fortune to have a lawn or woodlot scattered with walnuts, picking them up rewards you not only with the ability to walk safely across the ground, but to do so with cold hard cash in your pockets.
And how much cash is that, exactly? Well, you’re probably not going to be quitting your day job in order to concentrate on picking up walnuts every autumn, but most anyone can count on gathering a few dollars, perhaps even a few hundred dollars, in return for a little effort spent enjoying nature on sunny fall days.
For example, this year (2021) our local buyers are paying $16 per 100 pounds for shelled walnuts. The old-timers used to shell walnuts for their home use by placing them all in the road by the house and driving over them for a few days, but nowadays, commercial buyers set up buying stations at strategic locations and shell, bag, and then buy the nuts you bring them.
Because I am rather obsessive about quantifying such things, I kept track of my nut-collecting efforts and determined that I could pick up 6 to 8 bushels of nuts in an hour’s time from beneath relatively abundant trees. That meant that at $10 per hundred pounds of shelled nuts, a single bushel would yield $1.23 cents, so I could make from around $7.38 to $9.84 per hour. (DISCLAMER: $16 per hundred is what the buyers were paying at the beginning of the 2023 season. It will drop steadily as the season progresses, so one is well-advised to get off one’s butt and start picking asap.)
If you don’t consider this too impressive, remember that I had no expenses other than to drive my collected harvest into town, where I’d be going sooner or later anyway. Had I been able to locate and corral a group of cheerful willing helpers, (such as larger children of the sort you can never find around when you need them) we could have produced quite a haul with virtually no overhead expenses.
Of course, you might also consider keeping the trees, the logs, AND the nuts all to yourself. If so, you’ll need a hammer and a rock or similar hard place to crack the shells, and a horseshoe nail to dig out the nut meats. That’s the time-honored method of getting out the goody, at least for as long as horseshoes have existed. Most other techniques leave the nutmeats in even tinier pieces due to the incredible hardness and density of the shell, which is sometimes used as an abrasive for sandblasting.