New York Nut Growers Meeting Special!

This article wasn’t written to be part of our tour.

It was written to defend a decision to try to develop small-scale black walnut processing to those who might think that futile. This article is significantly longer than write-ups behind other tour links and includes minimal pictures so please know that a little time to read this will be required. We share it today because it is a perfect fit to today’s meeting. Some of the material in this article is drawn from the Northern Nut Growers Association Report of the Proceedings at the 43rd Annual Meeting – Rockport, Indiana, August 25, 26 and 27, 1952. Therefore, this information is shared today with a tribute to those 1952 members who documented “what everyone knows” so that it didn’t become “stuff nobody knows”. Thanks, from almost 70 years in the future.


A short history of black walnut processing in the US

People have been eating nuts for at least tens of thousands of years.

The name, date and location of the first person to eat a black walnut specifically has been lost to history but it is known that people were eating black walnuts in North America as far back as 5000 BC. It is also known that for as long as people have been eating black walnuts, they have proven to be more hassle to process than other nuts. This article summarizes the history of black walnut processing from when it began to present day with a look at what will be needed to take it to the next level.

The Age of Communal Black Walnut Processing

Nuts in general were a Native American staple food and the specific types of kind of nuts consumed by various groups and tribes appears to be a function of which nuts were regionally available. As an example, W. M. Beauchamp, who complied a collection of Onondaga plant names with the help of his friend Albert Cusick, reports that there was a common Onondaga term for any kind of nut (oo-sook’wah) and that the term for black walnut was a variant of this term (deut-soo-kwa-no’ne) meaning “round nut”. Beyond which nuts were available regionally, Native American nut consumption was likely further prioritized on basis of accessibility, meaning the nuts which could be most easily gathered, processed and safely consumed.

The Native American nut shelling process was straightforward and low-tech and therefore nut processing was an option for anyone. Nuts were placed on a stone and were cracked by being hit with another stone. Artifacts thought to be “nutting stones” have been found around the United States and the world, and these stones have a shallow U-shaped pit or depression thought to have been used a base for cracking open nuts. The depression is thought to have been helpful for holding the nut in place while the shell was being cracked via impact. Intrepid archeologist Carol S. Spears investigated this interpretation of how these artifacts were used by trying it herself and determined that, indeed “the use of a sandstone cobble as a hammerstone to crack nuts on a sandstone anvil will produce shallow U-shaped pits on both the hammer and anvil.”

Many have noted that Native American tribes approached nut processing by boiling nuts with cracked shells in pits, but a report complied by Joe Harl and Robin Machiran with the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis Inc. calls out why this general approach was problematic for black walnuts.  In general, “nut oils, rich in fats and proteins, would float to the top of the water solution, and (were) skimmed off by using a gourd or wooden ladle. The oils high in fat and protein could be added to meals, or drunk as a high energy drink, the first “sports drink”. Nut meats, due to their density, would float near the center of this watery solution and were removed by using strainers made of grass fiber. The nut meat could be eaten raw, mixed with foods, or ground on a metate to produce flour or a nut soup. Heavier nut shells settled on the bottom of the pit … Processing (black) walnuts within pits did not work as effectively, however, because the meat would not float in suspension … Walnuts had to be cracked open and the meat extracted from the shell by hand.”

Then as now, black walnuts were more of a hassle to process than other nuts. Then as now, black walnuts were recognized as a high quality food source. Early European settlers also recognized these truths. Seeds of the English walnut (aka the “Persian walnut” aka “juglans regia” aka “the walnuts they sell now in the grocery store”, which are not the same as the North American native black walnut “juglans nigra”) apparently were brought to the New World from the Old World and planted all over the region. English walnuts failed to thrive in New England and black walnuts took the place of English walnuts in colonial recipes. It can only be assumed that the general approach to black walnut processing taken by the early European colonists involved manual cracking and picking and that processing black walnuts.  The idea that defined of the age of communal black walnut processing was that everyone generally agreed that black walnut processing was something that everyone could do and this was true for thousands of years.

The Age of Black Walnut Processing Innovation

The First and Second Industrial Revolution brought sweeping economic and social change. One end result was that most household goods became no longer homemade. Innovation in nut processing appeared to lag behind more widely recognized achievements of industrialization like the iconic image of Henry Ford’s model T rolling off the assembly line. However, like all processes that could be industrialized, nut processing was caught up in the trends of the time and centralized and scaled up. By the turn of the 20th century, California’s almond industry was firmly established. Likewise, commercial pecan harvesting operations were organized in the first decades of the 20th century and mechanized shelling, broader transportation options and large-scale temperature and moisture controlled storage systematically drove pecan industry production levels from 2.2 million pounds annually in 1920 to between 250 and 300 million pounds today.  There was a desire to do the same with black walnuts but again, black walnuts proved more difficult to work with than other tree nuts and industrialization of black walnut growing and processing did not reach levels seen with crops like almonds and pecans nor was black walnut industry growth as dramatic. By the 1940’s, the black walnut shelling had mostly moved out of people’s farms and homes and manifested as a group of mid-sized plants distributed across some southern and mid-western states. Black walnut hulling, the processing step preceding shelling, was partially industrialized because shelling plants worked with distributed hullers who in turn interfaced directly with growers. Black walnut growing was never centralized at scale and tree ownership then and now remains highly fragmented. Therefore, the black walnut industry exited the age of industrial centralization only partly industrialized.

In concept, black walnut processing is straightforward.  Black walnuts need to be gathered, hulled, cured, cracked and picked or sorted to separate nutmeat from shell. A window into what the industry of the mid-1900’s eventually settled on as “state of the art” is documented in the Northern Nut Growers Association Report of the Proceedings at the 43rd Annual Meeting – Rockport, Indiana, August 25, 26 and 27, 1952.  Edwin Lemke provides a particularly vivid description of the functioning of key machines used for the separate processing steps of hulling, cracking and picking (separating the nutmeat from the shell). “The huller is located in a separate room. This room has the floor depressed to catch the removed hulls that are flushed outdoors with the aid of running water. The cylinder of this huller is 30 inches in diameter and 14 inches high. It is made of 3/16ths boiler plate. Three inches from the bottom of the cylinder is a revolving disc smaller than the inside of the cylinder. The disc being small enough it allows a 5/8th opening around the inside of the cylinder. It is this opening that permits the hulls to drop to the floor. The nuts are held captive because there is no opening in the cylinder for them to leave until the discharge door is opened on the side of the cylinder. The cover of the cylinder has a 10 inch feed hole into which the nuts are fed. A 10 inch furnace pipe elbow runs from the hole to the serving trough into which the nuts are poured. A 10 inch pusher is used to shove the nuts into the huller and serves to keep the feed hole closed while the nuts tumble around. The disc runs at 250 RPM which is the proper speed to do a good job. While the nuts tumble around a stream of water is used to wash the hulls free from the nuts and force the removed hulls to the floor below. The disc is supported by a 1-3/8 inch diameter shaft that runs through the disc and is held central as it revolves in a flange containing a 3/4 ball bearing that fits into the end of the concave in the shaft. Up four feet from the disc is a link self aligning bearing that allows the shaft and disc to turn like a gyroscopic top. The shaft’s pulley has ‘V’ belts connected to a 3/4 h.p. motor. I have hulled up to 40 bushels of clean nuts in 8 hours. The nuts after hulling are placed on drying trays indoors where temperatures are better controlled. The principle of this huller is that it separates the hull by centrifugal force. The hull drops down through the opening between cylinder and disc while the nuts riding on disc are discharged at right angles to the fall of hull. The machine is a separator.”

“The next basic machine is the cracker … Simply explained it could be likened to two pages in a book. One page is perpendicular while the other page is off the perpendicular about 7 degrees. The first page which is the anvil is fixed save for adjustments for nuts of varying size. The other page or hammer riding up and down through an inch and one quarter of travel is fixed to a crank below. Both of these pages or plates are heavy cast iron plates that are fluted and cause the nut to be cracked against these saw toothed flutes and while being cracked are revolved down through the plates. The plate moving at an angle forces the nut finally through a 3/8 inch opening where they fall into a rotary sieve. The sieve has three sizes of mesh. 5 mesh, 2 mesh and 3/4 mesh. The larger pieces go on through and are returned to the cracker. This cracker will crack up to 500 pounds per hour, and uses a 3/4 h.p. motor.”

“The last of the three basic machines is the picker … It is essentially a separator using a conveyor belt which carries the cracked nuts to needles that pick up the kernels and deposit them on trays that at the timed moment accept the black walnut kernels. The discarded shells remain on conveyor and travel to the end and fall into a receptacle. After this process, further inspection becomes necessary but up to the present it is the best we have.”

While the 1952 Proceedings of the Northern Nut Growers Association illuminate what at the time was considered black walnut processing industry “standard practice”, a 1969 article on Missouri’s Black Walnut Kernel Industry, published in the Missouri Historical Review, illustrates the geographic reach of the industry. The figure below, extracted from that article, shows the location of black walnut cracking and hulling stations in operation at the time of publication.

This same article sheds light on the scale of the mid-60’s US black walnut industry.  Via the figure shown below, the article reports that a little more than 30 million pounds of black walnuts were processed annually.  To compare this number with present day metrics, Hammons Products Company, the only large-scale black walnut processing operation currently active, reports on their website that they now process about 26 million pounds of black walnuts annually.  These numbers indicate that the US black walnut industry has not grown during the last half century and likely contracted during this period. Whether this is a function of the closure of certain shelling plants, of less walnuts being gathered or that there are simply fewer black walnut trees is unclear.

This same article sheds light on the scale of the mid-60’s US black walnut industry.  Via the figure shown below, the article reports that a little more than 30 million pounds of black walnuts were processed annually.  To compare this number with present day metrics, Hammons Products Company, the only large-scale black walnut processing operation currently active, reports on their website that they now process about 26 million pounds of black walnuts annually.  These numbers indicate that the US black walnut industry has not grown during the last half century and likely contracted during this period. Whether this is a function of the closure of certain shelling plants, of less walnuts being gathered or that there are simply fewer black walnut trees is unclear.

The Age of Black Walnut Processing Consolidation

The age of black walnut processing consolidation was entered when the number of operating black walnut shelling plants began to dwindle. A 1998 contribution from R. Dwain Hammons, then the CEO of Hammons Products Company, to the Nut Production Handbook for Eastern Black Walnut (published in January 1, 1998 by Southwest Missouri Resource Conservation & Development (RD&D), provides insight into how industry consolidation played out. Mr. Hammons reports that Akar Walnut Company in Tennessee closed operations around 1960 when the owner developed health problems. Gravette Shelling Company was purchased by Hammons Products Company after the original owner passed away in 1965. Black Brothers was a family-run business which closed in 1980. The R.E. Funsten Dried Fruit and Nut Company in St. Louis, Missouri, was organized in 1897 and closed in 1980 although because they were somewhat diversified their closure may not have been related to their black walnut business specifically. The R.E. Funsten Dried Fruit and Nut Company focused originally on pecans. Barnes Walnut Company, in Missouri, opened their doors in the early 1950’s and then was sold to the R.E. Funsten Dried Fruit and Nut Company around 1975. Indiana Walnut Company was started in 1987 and remained open for only a few years.

In contrast, Hammons Products Company grew from a modest start in 1946 to the point where their company now handles the vast majority of black walnuts processed annually. Independent contractors buy and hull black walnuts on the company’s behalf at regional stations and the hulled walnuts make their way to the Hammons processing plant in Stockton, Missouri. When the last Hammons competitor of significant scale closed their doors, the age of black walnut processing consolidation ended and the era of a single company having almost complete market dominance began.

Industry consolidation does not appear to have been driven by one or more step changes in processing technology. The 1998 contribution from R. Dwain Hammons to the Nut Production Handbook for Eastern Black Walnut cited previously indicates that while the machines used by Hammons Products Company have been overhauled and modified many times, the basic technical approach originally taken is the approach taken today.

Can the Age of Distributed Black Walnut Processing Arise?

Black walnuts were an important North American food source historically.  Today, they are more of a curiosity or local heritage food and a negligible contributor to the total national calorie count. That the black walnut industry has likely been in decline since the 1970’s is not well known and the constraint does not appear to be black walnut supply. Even when black walnut industry production levels were at a maximum, many black walnuts went unprocessed and uneaten because the black walnut industry never served the entirety of tree’s native range. If our society aspires to make our food supply more diverse and climate resilient, re-developing the black walnut industry is a logical step in that direction.

Reverberating through major industries today is the theme of technology-enabled decentralization and diversification. The work concentrated in cities by industrial revolution forces is slowly relaxing into a wider geographic footprint. This trend is in its infancy but is happening across the board as a counterpoint to increasing globalization. It’s happening in energy with onsite solar photovoltaics and batteries. It’s happening in retail with the rise of online shopping. It’s happening in entertainment and advertising now that almost everyone can create and upload content. The common thread linking these examples of industry decentralization is that they rely on a fundamental change in technical approach. These highly visible global industries attract the attention and ideas of innovators around the world. Black walnut processing, an under-the-radar regional/niche industry, has been less broadly exposed to innovation because the rationale for and upside associated with re-inventing the black walnut industry isn’t widely appreciated. The age of distributed black walnut processing has not yet happened and there is no guarantee that it will. A successful transition to the age of distributed black walnut processing would put processing capability near where black walnut trees are growing without compromising the quality control aspects of large-scale processing.

The first step towards solving a problem has always been to recognize that a solution is needed. This step has now been taken.


Beauchamp, W. M. “Onondaga Plant Names.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 15, no. 57, 1902, pp. 91–103. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/533477. Accessed 11 Mar. 2020.

Harl, Joe and Machiran, Robin, 2013. PREHISTORIC CULTURES OF THE CITY OF WILDWOOD ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI. Prepared for: City of Wildwood by Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis Inc. 2812 Woodson Road, St. Louis, Missouri, Research Report # 688B.

Rafferty, Milton D., 1969. Missouri’s Black Walnut Kernel Industry, Missouri Historical Review, Volume 063 Issue 2, p 214-226.

1952, Various. August 25, 26 and 27, Rockport, Indiana. Northern Nut Growers Association Report of the Proceedings at the 43rd Annual Meeting.