Peeling off the layers of a possibility

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Folkert operates a hulling site for black walnuts

By Maria Bichler

PLAINVIEW — Matt Folkert has cracked open an opportunity for himself in southeastern Minnesota.

It revolves around black walnuts.

Folkert, of rural Plainview, began a buying location for black walnuts last fall. The 27-year-old operates the Hammons Products Company hulling site as an independent contractor of the company at his uncle’s farmsite near Elgin.

Hammons Products Company is a family-owned business that buys black walnuts from across the Midwest and is based in Stockton, Missouri.

The company purchases 25 million pounds of black walnuts from 11 states each fall. To do so, Hammons Products Company works with more than 200 buying stations, each managed by independent contractors.

Anyone can bring black walnuts to a buying location, meaning the nuts are almost all wild harvested and grown without management.

Ready-to-eat black walnuts, walnut cooking oil and protein powder are produced by Hammons Products Company, among other products.

For his first season in operation, Folkert collected 27,782 pounds of hulled black walnuts. This year, he hopes for an even greater amount.

“This year, especially now that it’s not the first year and people know about it, it’s going to run a lot better,” Folkert said. “I’m hoping to have an even better turnout.”

Folkert, who grew up on a farm in the area, operates the hulling location as a part-time, seasonal job. His full-time job at Mayo Clinic in Rochester keeps him occupied during the week.

“Generally, I also really love gardening and being outside,” Folkert said. “I like helping on the farm.”

When someone brings black walnuts to the location, the in-hull nuts are processed through a hulling machine which strips the green outer hull and the hulled black walnut remains. Then, the hulled nuts are weighed. Folkert pays each customer a set amount per pound.

The nuts are then placed in 50-pound bags and placed on pallets to dry. At the end of the collection season, a semitruck collects the inventory Folkert has.

Hammons Products Company pays Folkert a premium above what he pays to customers, albeit the profit margin is not large, Folkert said.

“This is a side gig; it’s not big money, even for me who is running the hauling station,” Folkert said. “I enjoy the independence of knowing it is what I make of it.”

Folkert manages the location with the help of family members, who aid with record keeping and customer transactions. Folkert does the majority of the manual labor.

“My goal is to eventually be self-employed, and this is a small step in that direction,” Folkert said.

Folkert said many people of previous generations are familiar with identifying black walnut trees but also harvesting and eating the nuts.

Black walnuts differ from an English walnut in that they have shells that are up to one-eighth inch thick and require specialty tools to open.

“The only people I’ve talked to who really know what the nut meat tastes like are older people who used to crack them out,” Folkert said. “The older generations knew what to do with them and how to get them out of the shells. But, it’s a lost thing among younger generations because it’s a lot of work to bother with.”

Hammonds Products Company has created a niche for itself in that they have developed a process to shell the nuts and get useful amounts of nut meat after the automated process, Folkert said.

Commercially, the shell pieces are further utilized for abrasive cleaning, water filtration and within the oil drilling industry. Shells can also be found in cosmetic products and as a filler in dynamite production.

Folkert’s family uses the hull pieces as fertilizer which they spread using a manure spreader. Folkert said while the hulls do not affect crops such as corn, soybeans and grasses, the hulls can harm vegetable plants such as tomato and potato because of an allelopathic effect.

Folkert said black walnuts have a superior taste that can be versatile in cooking and baking. But, the nuts can also be enjoyed as a pure product.

“I like eating them plain,” Folkert said. “They are one of the few nuts that has a good enough flavor to do that for me.”

The uniqueness of the product adds enjoyment to the process for Folkert.

“It is really something that is truly special,” he said. “That adds to the neatness factor of it for me.”

The buying location is open for five Saturdays beginning Oct. 7.

“I definitely see myself, at this point, doing this next year,” Folkert said. “We’ll see how this year goes. I don’t anticipate any disasters, but then again, no one ever does.”