Collecting black walnuts an Ozark tradition

Friday, November 1, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:22 a.m. CDT, Friday, November 1, 2013

SPRINGFIELD — Terry Crocker's mother, Jearldean Shelton, was proud of her black walnut trees.

Every fall, as a child, Terry would collect the green globes off the ground for her mom, spread the nuts out on the driveway and crack them open with a hammer, the Springfield News-Leader reported.

Her mom used the nuts to make "homemade fudge and awesome fruit salads" throughout the year.

But the tradition was short-lived. Shelton died when Crocker was only 13.

"Nothing ever tastes as good as mama's cooking. She'll have to cook for me when I get to heaven," Terry said on a crisp autumn morning while she collected black walnuts in Phelps Grove Park.

Many people in the Ozarks remember collecting — or still collect — black walnuts.

Amie Breshears, a mother of three, picked the nuts with her parents. Her grandparents in Marshfield picked for years and would throw the nuts out in the driveway and run them over with the car.

Sometimes, Breshears, who lives in Warsaw now, used money from the nuts for Christmas gifts.

"I remember being in the Bolivar Walmart with my dad and going through and picking a little kitchen sink thing with a stove on top," Breshears said. "We got plastic food that went with it. That is a neat memory. I remember thinking it was the greatest day of my life because we had money and we had helped pick up walnuts."

Every October, the nuts rain down on city parks, farms and neighborhoods. Some people find the nuts a nuisance; some collect enough for their holiday baking; others see them as an opportunity.

"It's like money that grows on trees," said Shaun Crocker, Terry's husband, who collects black walnuts with her. "This looks like a good year."

This is supposed to be a good harvest, and Stockton-based Hammons Products — a leading commercial processor of the nuts — is paying $13 per 100 hulled pounds.

The busiest Greene County hulling station is located at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds North Gate.

Already this year, the Crockers have collected more than 5,200 pounds.

They are so well known that when they approach the hulling station, the "huller" starts writing the check, Terry said.

In their worst year, they made $400; in their best, they pulled in $1,400.

For 2013, they've surpassed last year's earnings, but 2012 was a bad year.

They work through the wind and rain because that's when the black walnuts get knocked off the trees.

And if they don't collect, then other harvesters will.

They start at the city parks, which are first come, first served, Shaun said.

"If I see someone picking nuts over here, it's common courtesy to go over there," Shaun said, after he dumped another bucket of nuts into the back of his pickup truck.

The heavier the load, the more the tires sink down.

As the season goes on, the price paid for the nuts can drop, so it's best to get in as early as possible, the Crockers said.

Brian Hammons, president of Hammons Products, said the price is not expected to change any time soon.

"I'd still encourage folks to get them in as soon as they can after they're picked up — that's when they're the best quality and weight," he said.

Although the Crockers started off collecting in parks, over the years, they've cultivated clients.

Realtors will call when there's a house for sale and the nuts are falling in the yard; lawn services ask them to collect nuts before a mowing job; elderly people who are afraid of tripping on the nuts ask for help; and random people stop them, too.

"I had a gal the other day who said, 'You have to come get my nuts.' People just want someone to haul them off," Shaun said.

Shaun and Terry count on the annual harvest to buy Christmas gifts for their three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"There wouldn't be Christmas in our home without it. We're on a fixed income and the government doesn't give us more for Christmas," Terry said. "This is the only time we get extra income."

Although both of them collected black walnuts when they were children, the Crockers started collecting together nearly a decade ago, after Terry had a heart attack.

She weighed 220 pounds.

Both obese at that time, they started walking constantly and getting outdoors. They saw this as a way to keep fit in addition to earning extra money.

"We get a lot of good exercise doing this," she said.

They use a Nut Wizard — a contraption that resembles a broom with a round wire net — and sweep it along the grass. The nuts roll up into the Wizard as the Crockers move across the lawn.

They've come to know the parks around Springfield, and they venture out to other cities, too. At Phelps Grove Park on a recent morning, they end at the "money tree," which was full of nuts, said Shaun.

One year, they made a killing on this tree, which is why they call it the money tree. But this year, it's holding on to a lot of its nuts.

Still, they manage to fill a couple of buckets before moving on.

They'll be back.

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George Cox November 1, 2013 | 9:00 a.m.

Who buys black walnuts in Boone County?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 1, 2013 | 12:03 p.m.

@ George Cox:

Probably the largest buyer of Missouri black walnuts is Hammons. This year they intend to buy 25 million pounds of black walnuts at $13 per hundred weight for hulled nuts, meaning after the removal of the outer hull.

During the buying season, which began October 1st this year, they will set up their portable hulling stations at no less than 260 locations in Missouri and surrounding states.

Suggest you phone 1-888-429-6887 to determine WHERE and WHEN they will have a collection site nearby. I do know they run a station near Hermann, Missouri annually. It's fun to watch their machinery de-hulling the walnuts. :)

Black walnuts are used by both candy and ice cream makers in their products. Hammond also sells the nuts retail on a web site.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 1, 2013 | 8:40 p.m.

George: I know there's a hulling station in Howard Cty and would be surprised if there was not one in Boone Cty. Follow Ellis's advice, and he is correct on all accounts.......

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 2, 2013 | 5:32 a.m.

Mein Gott in Himmel! Ellis is "correct on all accounts." Seriously, if you find they have already been to your area (they've already been at their 2013 campaign for a month) you could save the company name and phone number for next year.

Missouri is hardly unique where it comes to black walnut trees. Where Missouri IS unique is its native pecan trees, located along the Missouri River bottom in an area whose center appears to be Brunswick.

The pecans are smaller than the large ones from Georgia and New Mexico, but they have a sharper taste. Once you get hooked on them, you won't want to buy Georgia or New Mexico pecans.

[The New Mexico pecans come from an area along the Rio Grande River south of Las Cruces; they have been planted in groves with dikes around the groves. At various times during the growing season they actually FLOOD the diked area with river water and let the water be soaked up by the tree roots. This is a tricky operation, as the tree roots being too long under water is bad for the trees. If you can irrigate, you can grow all sorts of things in that river valley, the most famous being peppers.]

For years I purchased cracked, unshelled pecans from Miller Farms just east of Brunswick; now I buy from King Hill Farms, which is a bit farther east of Brunswick on the north side of US 24.

This year some relatives will make my purchase for me, picking up the pecans when they do. The closest to Brunswick I'll get this autumn was a trip to Webster Groves last month - but that's a long way from Brunswick.

[I realize that by mentioning both Hammons (black walnuts) and King Hill Farms (pecans) I am technically violating the restriction on citing businesses. Hopefully, I won't be barred from further participation. :)]

(Report Comment)

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