The High-Potential for Nut Crops
BY ELIZABETH GABRIEL
Nuts are incredibly nutritious and extremely high in protein and healthy fats. The growth of a regional market for organic nuts would fill a critical gap in our regional community food system – there are very few high-protein crops produced here (besides meat). Further, nut trees have tremendous potential as a multi-purpose crop here in the Northeast and should be both cared for and valued in existing landscapes and also planted and grown out. To learn more, I spoke with a few members of The New York Nut Growers Association (NYNGA), an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that is dedicated to finding and preserving existing nut trees and also to inspiring and promoting gardeners, landowners and farmers to plant more nut trees.
Long-time member, Carl Albers, is the Chair of the English walnut project, which started just 5 years ago, is trying to identify existing English walnut cultivars that are productive trees in New York State and that produce good-tasting nuts. The group collected nuts from a dozen trees and distributed them to members for a taste and crack test. While a light kernel is critical for an international market, here in the Northeast, Carl doesn’t anticipate competing in an international market, but there is potential for a niche regional market with these nuts. The challenge is to identify English walnut trees that are adequately disease resistant and well-adapted to our NYS Climate.
Carl further shares that butternut and black walnut trees are both desired for their nuts and lumber production. Chinese chestnuts – delicious, cold hardy and resistant to the chestnut blight – could provide a lucrative commercial market. Hazelnuts also offer high-potential for a commercial market, being extremely delicious and offering a relatively short years-to-yield ratio. English walnuts and heartnuts also offer the potential for a market for edible nuts that are still being explored. Meanwhile, bitternut hickory nut oil could serve as a regional replacement for olive oil!
Sara Tyler, another NYNGA member, and founder of Black Squirrel Farms is passionate about collecting and processing black walnuts. While black walnut trees are known for their timber, the nuts are edible and the shells can be used as a smoking chip and even in cleaning products. Her team coordinates a black walnut collection program, in which members get paid to drop off nuts. As they expand their processing infrastructure, Black Squirrel Farms has way more nuts than they can process at this moment, but, as Sara explains, “nuts are a forgiving crop to work with because they are relatively shelf-stable when kept frozen”.
As you might notice by the number of black walnut and hickory trees scattered in your backyards or forests, most nut trees are pretty adaptable to varying – and even disturbed – soil types. (In fact, there’s a correlation between where Native settlements were, and where black walnuts grow). Nonetheless, it is always recommended to avoid frost pockets when planting new species, and know the particulars of the species you’re working with. Some nut-growing resources in the State you can learn and purchase trees from are Z’s Nutty Ridge (znutty.com), NY Tree Crop Alliance (nytca.org), Twisted Tree Farm (twisted-tree.net), Edible Acres (edibleacres.org), Black Squirrel Farms (blacksquirrelfarms.net) and Perfect Circle Farm – in VT (perfectcircle.farm).
NYNGA holds three meetings per year and all are welcome! Visit nynga.org/ for more information.