Black Walnuts All ‘Round
In the Summer 2014 SFJ there is an article by Glenn Dahlem about the black walnut (p. 62). If I may, there are a few additions I would like to make regarding using black walnuts. First, the harvesting. From what I read it’s best to gather the fallen nuts and hull them while the hulls are still green if you’d like to eat them, as apparently the resultant ‘dye’ from the hulls turning black bleeds into the nutmeat and imparts an unpalatable bitter flavor. I’ve not bothered trying to verify this, but that’s what I’ve read.
Second, regarding removing the hulls. An old-fashioned corn sheller is one option. I have an antique Blackhawk model that I picked up at a farm auction a couple years ago. It’s a fairly simple cast-iron hand-cranked affair and it has a tensioning spring adjusted by a thumbscrew on one side. It came mounted on a nice wooden box in such a way that, when shelling corn, the kernels fall in and the cobs are either ejected clear of the box or deposited into a nice pile in one corner. Unfortunately, hulling black walnuts isn’t quite so convenient. I have to manually dig through the contents of the box to pick out the nuts (in their shells) from the hulls. This is not a clean job, and not for those who dislike brown fingertips. I suspect the free-standing flywheel-operated corn shellers might work considerably better for hulling walnuts, but I have no firsthand experience there. (Those things go for an even higher price at auction, undoubtedly to be used as adornment for some city-dweller’s living room.)
A simpler way, if you’re not a stickler for tidiness, is to simply pile the walnuts up where they’ll be driven over frequently. This fall I piled them up at the edge of our driveway where I park my little truck so that I’d run over them fairly frequently. This won’t remove all the hulls, but it’s a lot less time consuming for the hulls it does remove.
If you’re planning on eating the nuts, the next step is to clean the in-shell nuts by putting them in a bucket and filling it with water. Jostle them around a bit, and discard the ones that float to the surface. (They float because the nut inside never fully developed, leaving a hollow space.) Because hulling is not a clean process, they’ll probably require a good bit of washing. Then leave them to dry on a wire rack. Supposedly leaving them until they have dried to the point that you can hear the nutmeat rattle inside the shell when shaken makes for the easiest nutmeat extraction.
I, however, feed my black walnuts to the chickens. I first heard this idea from a plain-living acquaintance who, I believe, roasts the nuts first. Why, I don’t know. Then I read an account in J. Russell Smith’s book “Tree Crops” about farmers in the Ozarks overwintering their laying hens on nothing but black walnuts and whatever the hens could forage. I have a wall-mounted black walnut cracker (this isn’t your average run-of-the-mill nutcracker; these are heavy-duty things, owing to the strength of the walnut shells), also picked up at auction, which I use occasionally, though I find it much easier to just lay the nuts on a hard surface such as a tree stump or a concrete block and crack them with a wooden mallet. You do have to watch out for hungry, inquisitive chicken heads, though. A metal hammer or mini-sledge works too, though they seem to smash the nutmeats too much. The chickens pick the nutmeats out, providing food and satisfying their need to peck. Last winter, I noticed a dramatic increase in the strength of the eggshells once I started feeding walnuts. My wife tells me that pregnant women consuming plenty of protein have strong amniotic sacs as well. Evidently there’s a correlation there.
I was going to be clever and write about how much more economical it is to feed walnuts to chickens than to sell them to the walnut buyers, but turns out that’s not the case. Prices at the buying stations were high this year, in the ballpark of $14 per cwt, de-hulled. With the nutmeat constituting around 14 % of the de-hulled nuts (based on an entirely unscientific study of mine), this comes out to a payment of $1.00/lb. for the nutmeats. By comparison, current non- GMO chicken feed at the local mill is in the ballpark of $0.30/lb. So this year I could have sold, say, 42 lb. of edible nutmeats (300 lb. of de-hulled nuts) for $42.00 (3 cwt at $14/cwt) and then purchased 140 lb. of chicken feed with that money. By keeping the walnuts on farm and feeding them, however, I do save a trip to the buying station, as well as a trip to the feed store. I also retain the economic value of the hulls and shells (as described in the above-mentioned article, or simply as fertilizer) and I get a fresher feed product to boot. What’s the price of more self-sufficiency and better feed? And, hey, if I really wanted to maximize the price received on black walnuts, I could always try my hand at direct marketing, since there is obviously a market for them.