Walnuts are at the core of a classic get-rich-slow scheme in the upper Midwest. The plan works like this: plant 10 acres of Black Walnuts, wait 30 years, then cash in by selling the lumber for a zillion dollars. You can see stands of orderly Black Walnut rows growing all across the upper Midwest—like little retirement funds, slowly compounding interest. I own several acres of these trees here at Stonecroft Farms in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
I haven’t gotten rich. And I now doubt this moneymaking plan ever actually worked, at least for the planters. Black Walnut wood is indeed very valuable, perhaps worth $1,000+ per mature tree. So if your stand has 1,000 trees, well, my math’s not good, but that seems like a lot of potential income. The problem is they never really grow that fast. In real life, you need more like 50 years.
A few intrepid entrepreneurs instead try to make money by gathering up the nuts. This, however, is a very bad idea. Black Walnut nut meats are a valuable commodity, but they’re locked inside a notoriously hard shell. And the shells are embedded in tough green husks that are also no fun to remove. The most common method of removing the husks is to drive your SUV over them repeatedly. Really. I have tried it with my Honda Element, and indeed it works. But the outer husk is an inky mess—and one of the most powerful stains in nature. I ruined a lot of pants trying to husk my nuts. (Sorry, that sentence sounds all wrong).
1,000 trees at $1,000 each was a hard-to-resist proposition for many Midwestern farmers.
And even after husking (or dehusking?), you’ll need a very specialized nutcracker to coax the meat from the shells. I own one called “Grandpa’s Goody Getter” that works, one nut at a time. It’s well named, since only grandpas (and perhaps prisoners) have time for this process.
Another possible income source is the delicious syrup that can be drained from Black Walnut trees, just like maples. The syrup sells for premium prices, but, alas, that’s for good reason. I set up a series of taps and buckets to try this, but the sap flow from my 20-year-old Black Walnut trees just wasn’t worth the effort. For humans, the older you get the more the “flow” slows to a trickle. But for Black Walnuts, it’s the reverse. The tree needs to be 40+ years old before the sap stream reaches the necessary velocity.
In contrast to Black Walnuts, English Walnuts are a great cash crop—because their nuts are tasty and the shells are thin and easy to crack. The walnuts you find in a grocery store—those are English Walnuts. But they won’t grow here in Zone 5. So I tried growing grafted walnuts, that is, an English Walnut grafted on a Black Walnut root. They all died.
But there is hope. A newly-available variety called “Manregion” English Walnuts promise to deliver terrific nuts from a tree that will grow in Zone 5. We planted several in the spring of 2021. Check back in 2040. We’ll probably be filthy rich from nut sales by then.