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Wild Nuts Are Making a Comeback in Southern Appalachia

As Justin Holt comes in for a handshake on a bright morning in early November, it’s hard not to notice the color of his palms. They’re the hue of fine wooden furniture, a warm, ruddy tone that is considerably darker than the wrists that peek out from the long sleeves of his broad-checked flannel shirt.

Holt smiles as he turns his hands outward. “They’re going to be brown like this through Christmas,” he says. The rich stain was a natural consequence of how Holt spent his fall: processing thousands of pounds of black walnuts through the Asheville Nuttery.

Black walnut trees are a common sight across Western North Carolina and much of Southern Appalachia. Their canopies spread tall and broad, with long, pointed leaves that turn a vibrant yellow in the fall. And they’re abundant producers of greenish-yellow fruit, each about the size of a tennis ball and containing a wrinkly brown nut.

Yet for many in the area, black walnuts are more problem than produce. Their hulls cling tenaciously to the nut and, as Holt’s hands attest, stain almost everything they touch. Their shells are harder and thicker than those of the English walnut, the most common commercially cultivated species, and are difficult to separate from the kernel within. Suburbanites with walnut trees often treat the nuts as trash, gathering them up only for disposal to maintain a clear lawn.

Holt and his partners at the Asheville Nuttery, Bill Whipple and Greg Mosser, are trying to shift that perception. Since 2017, the cooperative has been piloting new ways to collect, process, and market tree crops, with the goal of catalyzing a local nut-based economy.

Walnuts are just the beginning, says Holt, as he walks into the Nuttery’s storeroom. The converted garage is chockablock with green and black plastic bins, each holding a bevy of nuts being dried for the future.

“It’s a different feeling to inhabit the landscape in a way where you’re paying attention to what gifts are available right around any corner. It turns your life into an Easter egg hunt—it brings the landscape to life in a way that is pretty thrilling.”

Pin oak and black oak acorns can be pressed to extract a bright orange oil that tastes of caramelized butter. Mockernut and shagbark hickories, when pounded and simmered in water, yield a milk Holt describes as “liquid banana-nut bread.” The Nuttery works with at least a dozen different species, although walnuts are by far the most prevalent by weight.

By encouraging people to see the value in their native trees, the Nuttery hopes to inspire parallel efforts across the region. Creating outlets for community-scale nut crops, Holt suggests, could incentivize landowners to keep their existing trees or plant new ones, agroforestry practices that might help them mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Just as importantly, believes Holt, embracing wild nuts can transform how residents experience their environment. “It’s a very different kind of feeling to inhabit the landscape in a way where you’re paying attention to what gifts are available right around any corner,” he explains. “It feels kind of like it turns your life into an Easter egg hunt—it brings the landscape to life in a way that is pretty thrilling.”

Laying the Groundwork for a New Market

Such a view of nut trees in the South was once much more widespread. The Cherokee people native to the region have historically gathered and eaten a wide variety of wild nuts, including the American chestnut, now all but gone from the forest due to a blight introduced in the late 1800s through imported Japanese chestnuts. European settlers also made use of wild tree crops, particularly black walnuts, and Holt says numerous companies processed and sold them through the middle of the 20th century.

Given their labor-intensive harvest and processing requirements, however, wild nuts largely fell out of favor as the country’s food system became more industrialized and commercial U.S. nut production became concentrated in California. One firm—the Stockton, Missouri-based Hammons Product Company, which still relies on hand-harvested wild black walnuts—is essentially all that’s left of the old nut economy.

Hammons used to collect black walnuts at a station in Western North Carolina, remove the hulls, and ship the nuts to Missouri for further processing. The company pulled out of Appalachia several years ago due to insufficient volumes, says Holt; the nearest of Hammons’ 200-plus collection stations is now in Spring City, Tennessee, well over a three hours’ drive away.

The Asheville Nuttery aims to process at least 20,000 pounds of black walnuts this year, along with thousands of pounds of other species. That scale would fill the gap between the national reach of Hammons, which expects to purchase over 15 million pounds of walnuts this year, and someone processing a few nuts from their backyard for a cake.

But without a model to follow or ready-made tools to purchase, trying to make that scale economical has meant a lot of trial and error. Holt, who also works as an independent permaculture consultant and a guide for the foraging tour company No Taste Like Home, says the cooperative’s members haven’t yet paid themselves from Nuttery activities.

Justin Holt shows off a handful of hickory nuts, which he says yield a milk similar to “liquid banana-nut bread.” (Photo credit: Daniel Walton)

The Nuttery recently invested in an optical sorter to speed up tasks like sifting caps and shell fragments away from cracked acorns. And it made a major leap forward in efficiency by developing its own commercial-scale walnut huller, supported by a $10,000 grant from a regional foundation. Holt says he chanced upon an expired 1958 patent by inventor Clovis Packwood, which provided the basic design, then tweaked and iterated with the help of local fabricator Dan Hettinger.

The resulting contraption consists of a big green metal drum, which is fed a constant stream of walnuts from a conveyer belt. “There’s a shaft that runs through the middle with chains welded on in a spiral pattern,” Holt explains. “The chains advance the nuts down the chamber, all the while kind of spanking the hulls off.”

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