Walnut hullers & gatherers

Collecting walnuts involves difficult labor and meager pay,
but Sherry Cannady considers the job a pleasure.
Friday, October 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The black walnuts piled in the back of Sherry Cannady’s forest green Ford Ranger don’t know what’s about to happen to them, but Cannady does.

Standing in the bed of her truck, she lowers the tailgate and starts emptying walnuts from a black plastic trash can into a hopper at the base of a large green “hulling machine.”

Cannady’s truck is backed up next to the machine that will separate the black walnuts from their soft outer “hulls.” At the flick of a switch, the electric contraption rumbles to life, pouring out walnuts at one end and hulls at the other.

Cannady, who lives in Higbee, is known to family and friends as the “walnut lady.” Since 1978, she has been collecting walnuts from Branson to Moberly, then selling them in the fall to bring in extra money.

“When I was a kid, I wanted money to buy Christmases for my family, so I started picking up walnuts,” Cannaday said. “And now it’s bought a lot of Christmases for my own kids. I made $2,000 last year and the year before, and I kept 300 pounds (of walnuts) for myself.”

Cannady empties another plastic storage bin of nuts into the hopper. They move up a conveyor belt and are dumped into the huller’s main chamber. Inside the machine, the nuts fall into what looks like a metallic rib cage. Links of chain tear off the lime-green hulls, and the waste falls into a trough before being carried off by another conveyor. The nuts are caught in the metal cage and jostled into sacks.

Hammons Products Co. of Stockton provides the machine. This year, the company has 132 “hulling stations” in Missouri and will collect walnuts in 13 states. The company will buy millions of pounds of native black walnuts, just as it has since 1946.

It’s the first year of collecting walnuts for Lisa Saunders of Moberly. She’s Cannady’s partner for the day and seems happy to see her labor coming to fruition.

“I’m a rookie, but let me tell you, it’s hard work,” Saunders said. “You start at 7 in the morning and drop in bed at 8:30. My back is talking to me, I tell you what.”

Although the two women used a Walnut Wizzard, a tool with a rolling wire basket shaped like a football that snatches nuts from the ground, the two still had to pile the nuts and then use sacks and buckets to get their bounty to their trucks.

“You come home to a good, hard-work tired. It’s not a bored tired,” Saunders said.

When the huller finally finishes, Cannady and Saunders join Paul Lehmann in tying off 60-pound mesh sacks and piling them on a scale.

Lehmann, a conversationalist who smiles easily and often, took over hulling walnuts on his certified organic farm just south of Fayette two years ago. Although Hammons pays him a 3.5-cent commssion per pound of walnuts purchased, his favorite part of the job is meeting people. Before he begins reading the scale, he asks Cannaday to guess the weight.

Cannady guesses 275 pounds, and when Lehmann tells her she is low by almost 10 pounds, she points out the partial sack on the top of the pile that escaped her attention, and they share a laugh.

Together, Saunders and Cannady came up with 609 pounds of walnuts on Wednesday. They split the money almost evenly, with Cannady taking a check for 304 pounds of nuts and Saunders taking a check for 305 pounds. At the rate of 13 cents per pound that Hammons pays, the checks amount to slightly more than $40 each.

After Cannaday and Saunders take their checks, a brown Chevrolet pickup backs up to the hopper and drops its tailgate.

“This is just one tree, and that wasn’t even all of them,” Barbara Windfield said as she nodded her head toward the 6-foot truck bed filled to the brim with green-hulled nuts, many of them apple-sized. She and her husband pile the nuts into the hopper with snow shovels.

As the huller begins rumbling again, Cannaday stands a few yards away, near a trailer packed with shipping pallets of nuts that are waiting to be picked up the next morning.

“People think I’m crazy,” she said. “But I don’t figure it as work. I figure it as a relaxation and a pleasure activity.”

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