Jane C. couldn't come out to play yesterday when we celebrated Mary Ellen's birthday down along the South Chariton because she was hulling black walnuts at her place just up the road. So we went over after lunch to "help" --- actually just to look.
When I was a kid, we picked up black walnuts by the bucketful or bushel basketful, then laid them out flat somewhere to cure --- sometimes in a driveway where just rolling over them repeatedly loosened the hulls (walnuts are notoriously sturdy and hard to hull and crack). Sometimes, we ran the nuts through an old hand-cranked corn sheller.
Jane, who acts as a Wayne County agent for a walnut processor down in Missouri, uses a vintage but wonderfully efficient piece of equipment powered by a small gasoline engine to do the job a heck of a lot more efficiently.
Nut pickers from all over the area pull up in pickups filled with barrels, garbage cans, boxes and bags full of walnuts gathered off the ground --- we have a heck of a lot of black walnuts around here. These are dumped into the hopper, shelled and bagged.
Nobody makes much money at this --- Jane pays pickers a few cents per pound of shelled nuts, weighing filled bags on a set of old scales bearing patent dates 1867 and 1870. But a lot of people do it --- it's a little extra spending money or income for worthy causes or just makes folks feel better because less is going to waste this way (there are enough to go around; squirrels and other critters are not being deprived).
The hulling season officially ends Monday, Jane said --- then a semi will arrive to pick up the 40,000-plus pounds of walnuts she'll have processed this year and haul them down to a processing plant to be cracked and nutmeats laboriously removed.
Iowa farmers used to say, when butchering a hog, that they planned to use everything but the squeal. Something similar could be said for walnuts --- the hulls left behind at Jane's place will be spread on farm fields as fertilizer; the nutmeats will be extracted and eaten one way or another; and the shells ground and used for other purposes.
Personally, I'm thinking of my mother's black walnut refrigerator cookies --- but lack the initiative to gather, hull, crack and pick my own, so will want a while until the nutmeats become available here and there on the shelves of some area stores.