On a recent fall day with orange and yellow leaves occasionally dropping off the trees at Phelps Grove Park, 71-year-old Kathlyn McMullin was enjoying the day and making money at the same time.
Using a long-handled nut gatherer, she picked up black walnuts that had fallen from a tree near the park’s edge, dropped them in a bucket and placed them in the back of her pickup truck before heading back to get more.
McMullin is one of many people who take advantage of what Brian Hammons, president and CEO of Hammons Products Company, calls free money laying on the ground.
Hammons Products was started in 1946 by the current CEO's grandfather, Ralph. He had a grocery store in Stockton, and one year he had an opportunity to buy black walnuts and send them to a company in Virginia.
"He got to looking around and said, 'hmm...maybe there's an opportunity for me here in all this,'" said Hammons, "so the next year he bought a cracking machine in Tennessee. He brought it here to Stockton. He bought 100,000 pounds of nuts. That's a lot of nuts if you don't have the market for it. Well he did, and he cracked those, processed them, and developed some markets, particularly in Missouri, St. Louis being one of the early larger markets, and grew it from there."
Brian's father, Dwain, worked at his father's company while attending high school and college and began his career helping his father grow the business. Today, Hammons Products is the world's largest commercial sheller of American black walnuts, "and has been for quite some time now," said Hammons.
The company has average annual sales of $12 million to $14 million.
Hammons Products buys, on average, 23 to 24 million pounds of black walnuts—both the nut meat and the shells—each year from anyone who takes the time and the effort to pick them up off the ground. The total payout each year, on average, is approximately $3.5 to $4 million.
Some of them need the money to get by, according to Hammons. "They're trying to find the money that's laying on the ground, picking it up, and they'll do things with the money like buy boots for the wintertime, buy clothes, coats. They'll sometimes even put food on the table," Hammons said. "More often it's for a special Christmas gift, something extra, dinners out or something like that."
Some, he said, don’t need the money, but they don’t want anything to go to waste. Others use the walnut harvest to teach their children the value of a little work.
"So they take them out, have them pick up the nuts, and they can have the money," Hammons said.
Most often, walnuts come to one of 238 buying stations in 13 states in pickup trucks or on trailers, but Hammons said he’s seen them come in little red wagons and in grocery carts.
Missouri leads the world in production of black walnuts, and the most walnuts each year come from southwest Missouri. According to Hammons, more black walnuts come from Greene County than anywhere else.
At the buying stations or hulling stations, nuts are loaded by hand into a hopper and taken by conveyor belt into the hulling machine where the outside casing or hull is removed, leaving only the shell and the nut. The final product is weighed, and those who brought in the nuts walk away with a check. This year, Hammons is paying $15 for 100 pounds of black walnuts.
The entire year’s crop is purchased in only about five weeks from early October until early November.
Jim Noble has worked 13 years as the satellite office coordinator at the hulling operation located at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds. That location, one of the busiest, processes 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of nuts each season. His favorite part of working there is the people. A lot of people come in time and time again, so he gets to know them.
"You get to meet them. You hear about their problems and their mishaps and their good fortunes in life whatever they might be. It's just kind of a renewing of acquaintances each year with everyone," Noble said.
The nuts from Noble’s location and others are transported to Hammons Products in Stockton where they’re stored in open air barns and in large bins to dry. The nuts are processed all year long. As long as there are nuts to crack, employees will be working hard in the shelling plant.
"The nuts are separated from the shells. The shells go up one direction--up to the shelling plant--and are ground and used in industrial ways, and the nut meats are food products," he said.
The nuts are used in a variety of products, but one popular use is in ice cream. Hiland buys them for its black walnut ice cream. So does Blue Bell, Braums and Baskin-Robbins. They’re also sold on grocery store shelves for use by home bakers. Hammons describes their flavor as bold, rich and distinctive, and they're high in protein and unsaturated fats. "People like that," he said, "and ingredients with a story, a background and a tradition."
The shells are sold by Hammons, too.
"So we grind those up after the nut meats are removed and we use those in industrial cleaning and polishing--kind of a sand blasting operation--for buildings and even for battleships years ago," Hammons said.
The oil industry uses ground up shells to fill cracks in rocks and as a filtration system for water. They’re used on soccer and football fields as a media instead of crumb rubber, and they can be used as an exfoliant in beauty products.
Hammons Products employs 80 people year round and another 20 to 30 during the harvest season. It’s the largest employer in Stockton. But many more people benefit financially from the company as they pick up black walnuts each fall.
Kathlyn McMullin started picking up walnuts as a child.
"It was $4 a hundred, and you had to hull them yourself," she said. "My dad would bring them in from the woods--we had 40 acres--and then he'd put them in the driveway, and we'd hull them, and we wouldn't get the stains off 'til Christmas."
Last year was a good year for walnuts. McMullin said she made enough money to pay the taxes on her property—around $1500. She’ll be lucky to make $500 this year. But she said it’s about more than the money.
"I love being outside," McMullin said.
Hammons Products is working to secure the future of black walnuts and the company by planting trees for demonstration and research purposes on land it owns north of Stockton. It’s working with Missouri State University, the University of Missouri and others to come up with improved varieties of walnuts. And the company encourages farmers and other landowners to include black walnuts in their operations.
A fourth generation is now working for the company. Jacob Basecke, Brian Hammons's nephew, is the business's sales manager.