Business Spotlight: Buy the Bushel

Stockton-based black walnut processor is world’s largest facility of its type

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Though its reach is international, Stockton-based Hammons Products Co. is about as local as it gets.

Each fall, people throughout Missouri and the surrounding states turn their eyes to the ground to search out the distinctive green husk of the black walnut.

By the bushel or the truckload, these are brought to Hammons’ Stockton facility or to one of its 220 collection stations in a 12-state area.

President and CEO Brian Hammons says the exact parameters of the season vary – “You don’t know when the nuts are going to fall off the trees,” he says – but the harvest runs about six weeks, and the company starts buying on Oct. 1. The first two weeks are a little slow, but then things pick up.

Yield can vary wildly from year to year. Hammons remembers 1999, the biggest year on record for the harvest, when 49 million pounds were brought in – but the following year only 9 million pounds were harvested.

Such is the nature of black walnuts; the trees experience alternating cycles, with a big yield one year followed by a smaller one the next.

Hammons says annual sales in 2020 was challenging, at about $10 million, as the second quarter was down 26%. “Normal is about $12 million,” he says.

Young black walnut trees line the property of the Stockton shelling facility, and Hammons can watch them and get a pretty good idea of where they are in terms of production.

“You see the nuts on the trees, you see them falling down,” he says. “It’s beautiful weather. This is the time we’re really expecting the harvest to ramp up.”

The company has experienced a couple of off years, with only 11.5 million pounds of nuts turned in last year. “This year, we could get 25 million pounds,” Hammons says. “What we don’t know is how well people will pick them up.”

That’s the thing with black walnuts. Almost all of the nuts are harvested from the wild by people who take the initiative – some of them for years, or even generations – to pick them up. Market prices change regularly, but as of Oct. 21, walnuts were bringing in $20 per hundred pounds after hulling west of the Mississippi and $18 east of the Mississippi, according to the Hammons Products website.

“We rely on thousands of people in Missouri and other states to take advantage of that natural resource and bring them in,” Hammons said.

Black walnuts grow well in Missouri, and Hammons also buys from Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. There are nuts in Pennsylvania and Virginia, too, but Hammons says it’s not cost effective to go quite that far to get them.

Most of the trees are in fields, pastures and some neighborhoods. Squirrels are the best planters, Hammons says.

The trees have high-value wood, and they are also found in forests, but Hammons noted those trees grow straight and tall without producing a lot of nuts.

Hammons Products is a unique business, according to its leader.

“There aren’t any other black walnut producers to choose from,” he says.

While small, local producers can be found in black walnut territory, Hammons Products is the only company that produces them on a large scale.

It’s clearly a source of pride for the CEO.

“We’re blessed to be able to do something nobody else gets to do,” he says. “Every year is a blessing, and it’s not guaranteed.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, was a grocery store owner who bought a cracking machine in 1946 and began selling his own “Missouri Dandy” black walnut nutmeats. Ralph gifted the business to his son and Brian’s father, Dwain, who then gifted it to Brian.

Black walnuts are a distinctive nut, with a sharp, earthy flavor. Their shells are strong and thick, and it can be hard to extract the nuts from them. In fact, on the inside, they seem to have nothing in common with their mild and more easily cracked cousin, the English walnut.

“God has made the black walnut just the way it is,” Hammons says. “It has a very thick shell, and you’ve got to use unique ways of separating the nut meat from the shell.”

Sometimes, Hammons is asked if he has engineers on staff to figure out the most efficient way to get at the product inside the shells.

“We have practical engineers,” Hammons says. “They don’t have a degree from a university. They know how to build things. They know how to weld.”

Hammons Products is the largest private employer in Stockton, with 80 regular employees when the company is in full production, plus more in the fall to help unload trucks of nuts coming in. Brian Hammons knows that in running the business established by his grandfather, he’s part of a sacred trust, with many local families depending on a successful harvest.

A good harvest can ensure that shelling happens at the factory well into the summer. After that, there is cleaning and preparation for the fall.

The company produces nuts, but other food products as well; among these are black walnut oil, which is becoming a popular alternative to olive oil for high-end cooking, and a protein powder that is a byproduct of oil production.

The facility also processes the shell into industrial products, including Kwik Seal, which is used in the petroleum industry. Some playgrounds feature black walnut shell as a play surface. It can be used as a gentle cleaner of metal as well. Whatever the task, Hammons tries to keep production going to ensure work for his employees for as long as he can.

One of these is Gary Engleman, who boxes nuts at the plant. Engleman has been there for 25 years. His mom and dad both worked there before him.

“One of the good things about it is it’s close to home, and I like the people here,” he says. “I always have good insurance.”

He acknowledges that the last three years have been slow because of the cyclical nature of the nut harvest.

“We have had some years when it was about all I could do to keep up, and I was a young man then,” Engleman says. “They’re saying this year is going to go back to that kind of production.

“We’ll see.”