From Tree to Nutritious Food; Cheap, Storable, Regenerative
By Robbie Coville with guidance from Edible Acres and Finger Lakes region tree folks
First draft November 9, 2019, last updated July 2020
- Processing for storage
- Cracking and use – tools, method, time, and culture
This is a basic plan for small-scale black walnut food sourcing. From gathering to use this entire setup can easily cost under $50 for black walnuts as a perennial food source, not including time or recommended ergonomic $100 Master Nut Cracker or better equipment to facilitate tree crop use and enjoyment. Many parts of this process are mulit-purpose and reusable.
This guide is intended to help the formation of small-scale black walnut cooperative enterprises, where people can work together to realize the abundance of tree crops. There are also farm-scale methods of cracking, sorting, and processing black walnuts, and value added products made using these nuts open many doors to enjoying this abundant nutritious food source. In some regions like around Hammons Black Walnuts in Missouri, there are more industrious scales and businesses for enjoying this tree crop. These nuts can be enjoyed simply as is or with enhancement – naturally suited to be sweet or savory – storing well and connecting us with age-old beings and traditions that are in our blood. A food for good living in good or bad times. May our relationship with this food source be accessible, equitable, and harmonious for all.
Black walnut trees are common in Central New York and thrive in a wide range. They provide timber and nutritious food. They begin fruiting in 5-10 years of age. Conserve those tree allies and their diverse communities that are present with us, propagate and cultivate future generations and enjoy them honorably. We can live in mutual benefit with the source of this regenerative food and with each other.
Gather nuts from a prolific and ideally free source, which are common in many places. Nut gatherers in the Ithaca, NY area reported that while in season, they stopped and visited trees when they’d see an abundance of nuts on the ground and were able to gather 10-15 gallons per minute. With various short visits to different trees, hundreds of gallons of nuts can be gathered. An abundance of medicinal and regenerative food growing on beautiful timber trees.
Gathered nuts will age in their husk, and when the husk loses its green color, that’s a good time to remove them. Until dehusking, try not to let the nuts dry out, and also let them breathe/drain so they don’t get too moldy. The husk rotting and beginning to be eaten by maggots is fine, the husk will be washed away and the nuts that’ll be stored are protected by sturdy shells.
How to husk and dry walnuts for storage
- Corded drill (used encouraged)
- Mud paddle
- Metal trash bin (used encouraged, preferably not leaking but small leaks are okay)
- Water for rinsing and float testing (rainwater, preferably with hose and handle, pressure not needed)
- (1) or more leak-free tub (for rinse-water, cheap at thrift store)
- (1) or more perforated bucket (for dunking rinses and for sorting, cheap at thrift store)
- Cleaning screens and drying racks (cheap with scrap wood and ~½” hardware cloth)
As noted in Edible Acres’ video Processing Nuts – Is it Worth the Time?, it is helpful to have regular, long-term walnut processing setup designed around using the sludge output from washing husks off shells. For example, cultivating a pawpaw patch down slope and nearby the walnut processing spot.
Dehusked walnuts stored well can last for a decade. To store them,make sure they’ve dried well first, this can be done on racks in the sun or in a drying loft near a wood stove. You may want a tarp under the racks early on as the cleaned nuts may still have some debris falling from them at first.
When dry, store the nuts on racks in a cool dry place. Sean of Edible Acres uses a standard-size rack that can stack on each other and fit a box fan on top. The racks are stacked in a cellar-like basement with the box fan pointing down blowing air through the racks. The cellar can be ventilated from outside. This way air can circulate through the nuts on occasion to keep them fresh. The fan is not needed at all times, mainly early on to ensure they dry out properly.
Cracking and use – tools, method, time, and culture
- Master nut cracker: $110 plus shipping, old school website takes orders and payment by check or money order from their Order Form page.
- Nut pick (can be made easily with branch and a nail: hammer nail into a clean-cut apx. 4-6″ branch that’s 1/2-1″ diameter, then knock the end of the nail off, then hammer flat the end of the nail to serve as the spoon-end of the pick.
Here is an industrious small-scale approach to black walnut processing. Using a small commercial nut cracker, hand sorting, and an air aspirator, 40 pounds of in-shell nuts is converted to 5-7% that weight nut meat, with 80% of shells sorted using air aspiration and a brief hand sorting and quality control check. The next scale up, as noted in this video, are color sorted and other visual sensors, but those are too expensive for most small-scale producers as of Summer 2019.
Cracking shells along their seam is the aim, as that’s the best chance of keeping nut meat in one piece while making it accessible from the shell.
Picking up, cracking, and removing the meat from a black walnut can take 15-45 seconds depending on skill and nut, using an ergonomic tool like the Master Nut Cracker. Many can be cracked open on the nut cracker at once casually 5-10 seconds each, then shells can be picked open and nut meat picked out one-by-one as a snack or as many at once in a focused effort. With this very small scale, low tech approach it theoretically takes 3 hours to extract nut meat from 1,000 black walnuts. It is a hand skill, and using your hands can be a healthy change of pace for many people.
More industrious approaches to extracting usable nut meat are also possible; from medium-tech agricultural machines using methods similar to those in grain processing (threshing, aerating/winnowing, shaking/sorting/sieving), to region-scale high-tech processing based in a factory with collection and husking hubs (e.g. Hammons Black Walnuts serving the Midwest and Eastern United States from Missouri).
A bowl of nuts resting safely in their dried shell, a Master Nut Cracker conveniently set on a table or desk. Sitting and snacking, one can get comfortable and efficient cracking nuts and extracting their nut meat. The activity becomes meditative or mindless, gently engaging as each nut is a little different and yet a technique develops. Enjoy alone during desk work or a podcast, with friends over a conversation.
Value added products can also be made with black walnuts.
Hammons Black Walnuts offers recipes and products. The annual Nut Bonanza festival of trees crops at Twisted Tree Farm offers hands- and mouths-on demonstrations of black walnut deliciousness, including raw nuts, candied nuts, breads, and cookies.
The culture of gathering, processing, storing, and enjoying nuts is catalyzed and crystallized by community. It is generational work that can satisfy our basic needs in ways that are mutually beneficial for each other and the sources of that satisfaction. Trees are the answer.
These instruction can be used to setup small-scale decentralized nut processing operation and cooperatives. A few people can team up and gather an amazing amount of this tree-based food. A relatively small amount of multi-use space – the size of a parking spot or two – can be home to an ergonomic processing station made of mostly thriftable, multi-purpose materials. Many of the skills are lost, but the methods are accessible, medicinal, and regenerative. What do you think of a small local nut gathering team, processing cooperative, or value-added enterprises?
May the force of forest succession be with you