The Ozarks' black gold

Thursday, October 19, 2006

WALNUT TIME: Thayer resident Mike Hargus, right, unloads over 400 pounds of walnuts his children Scott and Lauren picked up. Tom and Mary Marcun, operate the walnut hulling station located just north of Thayer at the old truck stop on Highway 63. Photo/Sisk Lawrence

OREGON COUNTY -- Mike Hargus got up early last Friday morning to arrive at the walnut hulling station north of Thayer.

The station is located at the old truck stop north of Thayer on Highway 63.

Hargus was one of the first to unload his pickup truck full of walnuts -- picked up by his children, Scott and Lauren. He helped Tom and Mary Marcum who man the hulling station unload 472 pounds of walnuts.

The Marcums, who sell the walnuts to Hammonds Products of Stockton, Mo., have been in the walnut business in Oregon County for 10 years. They said Hargus' load was pretty average.

"The biggest load we have had this year was 1,861 pounds. It was hauled in by a long trailer and pickup truck," Mary said.

Tom added that another load of over 1,700 pounds came in earlier in the month. "That was also a pretty good load of walnuts," he said.

The Marcums said so far the walnut crop in southern Missouri is the best they have ever seen. "We usually spend the first week in October twiddling our thumbs waiting for the walnuts to fall," Mary said.

Not so this year. She said she thinks diverse weather conditions and above average moisture in September caused the walnuts to fall from the trees earlier than usual.

"The first day our station was open, Oct. 2, we bought 10,000 pounds of walnuts. We estimate to have bought approximately 40,000 pounds the first two weeks. In years past we may not have bought but 2,000 pounds to this point," she said.

Hammonds is paying $13 per hundredweight for the walnuts. This is the highest black walnut price the Marcums have ever seen.

Hammonds buys walnuts in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and 12 other states. There are two other walnut hulling stations in the county, one at Mills Feed in Alton and the other at Myrtle Fertilizer.

Hammonds Products President Brian Hammond said last year was a near-record crop of walnuts with 36 million pounds sold to the company. He said he thinks this year's crop might be a bit smaller but should still be respectable.

"We're looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of 19 million pounds this year compared to 10 million two years ago," he said. Hammonds compares this year's crop with the 2004 crop because both are "off" years for black walnuts.

He said an "off" year is normal for walnuts which alternate high-yield years when trees use a lot of energy to produce bumper crops, with low-yield years in which trees recover and don't produce as much.

Just as other crops have been affected by drought conditions, black walnuts have been affected as well.

Walnut trees have deep roots, but a series of dry years have had an effect, he said.

"The biggest impact is the quality of nuts," he said. "The nutmeats the last few years have been worse than in the mid-90s."

Over 260 hullers sell to Hammonds in 16 states. "Ups and downs in local harvests tend to balance out," Hammond said. "This year, we feel there is a good amount of nuts, particularly in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

The harvest of black walnuts is unique because it is one of the only crops still picked by hand.

Individuals, families and fundraising groups earn money by picking up black walnuts and taking them to hulling stations. This year, Hammonds said, thousands of people will participate in the harvest using the income for everything from Christmas gifts to education.

Hammonds said black walnuts have a unique, bold flavor that is enjoyed by people all over America in baking, ice cream, salads and entrees. The hard outer shell is sold for industrial purposes, including oil drilling, and used as a gritty agent in cosmetic cleansers.

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