The American black walnut tree is native to 32 states, and grows in abundance in many parts of Missouri.
In the fall of each year, many Missourians take advantage of that abundance by gathering the trees’ fallen fruit and turning it into cash.
That tradition started in 1945 when Stockton grocer Ralph Hammons began buying black walnuts to hull and sell in his store. Almost 70 years later, the Hammons name is virtually synonymous with walnut products, and the Hammons Products Company in Stockton bills itself as the world’s premier processor and supplier of American black walnuts.
Over the years, Ralph Hammons’ practice of buying walnuts from the public has grown into a huge operation, and the family company now operates close to 200 hulling stations in 12 states, where people can literally drop off their walnuts and walk away with a check. Many of those stations are scattered around Missouri, and Hammons reports that this year, some of the heaviest hulling activity has taken place at stations in southern Missouri.
In fact, some stations in Missouri have even reported experiencing their busiest days in several years on Saturdays and Mondays during early and mid October.
Familiar to many Texas County residents – especially those with walnut trees on their property – is the Hammons hulling station on U.S. 63 north of Houston. Houston resident Kevin McGowen and other members of his family have run the station since it began operation a dozen years ago.
In a typical year, Hammons collects more than 100 tons of walnuts from Texas County pickers and reciprocates by paying them tens of thousands of dollars. Through last week, the Houston station had already surpassed the 300,000-pound mark, more than last year’s final total. The result is that some 725 checks had already been written out to customers.
“It’s a lot better than it was last year,” McGowen said. “And the increased weight equals increased checks.”
On a busy day, McGowen and his workers might see as many as 50 customers come through. It’s not uncommon on Saturday and Monday mornings to see a line of 15 to 20 vehicles waiting to have loads counted.
Hammons pays a per-pound price that varies based on several factors, including company goals and projected totals. This year, hulled walnuts brought 12 cents a pound to begin the season, and 10 cents after Oct. 20.
Several times each season, a tractor-trailer takes pallets loaded with bags of hulled walnuts from Houston to Stockton. About 750 bags go out with each load, each bag containing about 40-45 pounds of hulled walnuts. As of last week, the truck had already made four trips.
Not surprisingly, McGowen and crew have their regular customers, some of whom perform pretty impressive feats.
“On the 13th of this month, an 82-year-old man brought his 13th load,” McGowen said. “He gets up every morning and goes out and picks walnuts, then he has lunch with his wife and picks walnuts again in the afternoon.”
“He’s a spunky old man,” said Doug Thomas, who helps McGowen run the station.
Walnut season presents a chance for some people to get reacquainted.
“I only see some of these people once a year,” McGowen said. “In a way, I do this so I can see these people I don’t see any other time.”
One of McGowen’s annual reunions takes place with Betty and Benny Jarrett of Cabool.
“I’m one of his oldest customers,” Betty said. “And I’m getting old, too. When I first came here, his daughter was nothing but a little tyke. Now she’s 16.”
McGowen breaks down his walnut station clientele into three groups.
“First, there are the ‘professionals,'” he said. “They’re out here every day; they get up in the morning and pick walnuts all day long, then come here in the late afternoon or evening to unload them and get their check. Then they get up the next morning and do it all over again.
“Then there’s another group with two different types of people. There’s the ones who are mostly older who do it not for the extra money, because they’ve worked all their lives and they’re retired, but they still like to get out and do things. So because it happens to be walnut season, it gives them something to do while it also supplements their income.
“The other type are the people who are in between jobs or unemployed and they’re out here trying to make some extra money on purpose.
“And there’s one other group – they just clean their yard so they can mow one last time.”
By the time an average season is over, Hammons has purchased enough walnuts at its Houston station to provide close to $50,000 boost to Texas County’s economy.
“That’s a big impact on our community,” McGowen said. “That’s money that’s coming in from somewhere else and going to local people who pick these things up off the ground. That’s a lot of money that will come in from Stockton and be put in this local economy.”
At the heart of any hulling station is a machine designed to remove the soft outer portion of the walnut fruit – known as hulls, or husks – from the hard inner portion. McGowen said Hammons overhauls Houston’s hard-working machine each year, but because of the long hours it puts in, it inevitably needs some attention each season.
“They power wash it and repaint it and check for obvious things, like making sure the bearings, pulleys and belts are in good shape,” he said, “but every year I have to change something on it anyway.”
Walnut husks have been used in many applications over the years, including medicinal, and several websites describe their use in treating skin conditions and other maladies. Ground up husks are also said to be effective in controlling bugs, and McGowen said that every year a few people take some of the leftovers from the Houston hulling station and sprinkle it around the perimeter of their homes.
“We also get people who take the husks and make dye for Civil War era clothing,” he said. “And we have a guy who dries it and sells it to some sort of herbal company.
“There are a lot of ways people use this stuff.”
Some people pick walnuts to make money, and some do it for enjoyment, but McGowen recalls a woman who picked to save money.
“I don’t remember her name,” he said. “but she once said to me, ‘I never used to pick up walnuts until three years ago. I used to rake them to the ditch and burn them or mow them. But I found out one thing: by the time you buy new lawn mower blades and a new window, it’s worth picking them up. Those little things are like missiles.'”
Buying at all Hammons hulling stations will continue through Oct. 31.