Core memories are made picking up black walnuts in the Ozarks, and for a family-owned company like Hammons Products Co., that’s a big deal. President and CEO Brian Hammons says the tradition among families “makes it all worthwhile.” Last year, the Stockton-based black walnut processor, the world’s largest facility of its type, brought in 21 million pounds, largely due to the efforts of families who sell their collections to the company. The walnuts are shelled for their kernels to be used in food, with the shells themselves going toward industrial uses.
SBJ: Your company is synonymous with black walnuts in this area. Did you foresee that getting to where it is today?
Brian Hammons: Yes. By the time I was in my full-time career, our business had become the leader in the black walnut industry. That happened over many years through the ’50s and ’60s. By the mid-’80s or so, we were the only one that was still doing black walnuts. The challenge, then, is to keep that going. With a lot of changes in our culture, consumer patterns, food safety needs and practices, we’ve kept track of all of that.
SBJ: A lot of people in rural areas have memories picking up walnuts. What does that mean for your company that so many families are involved in that tradition?
Hammons: That really makes it all worthwhile. What we do, day in, day out, to buy the nuts, to process the nuts, to package them, dealing with all the issues that we deal with as a business … but then to hear the stories, especially during the fall of the year, people who pick up the nuts, the memories that they’ve created over the years and then they renew those every year. They bring their grandkids in. I love to hear the stories of people who reflect on their past years of picking up nuts, a lot of times with family, what you do with the money and how significant that money was to your family. That’s part of our purpose … to connect with people and create memories.
SBJ: How does the seasonality of the black walnut business impact company operations?
Hammons: We’re dependent upon that annual harvest. We watch the weather all year long, from the springtime during the pollination season as the nuts are set on the trees, all the way through the summertime, when we hope and pray for rain, and then into the fall, when we hope and pray for a little less rain so people can get out and pick up the wild nuts. October is the harvest time, early October through early November. The consumption of black walnuts is also somewhat seasonal. The Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons are a big focal point for many of our customers, grocery stores, that stock up on black walnuts. (Spring) is a big time for ice cream producers. Black walnut ice cream is popular – about 40% of our volume goes to black walnut ice cream. Less seasonal is our shell business. The customers are pretty much year-round.
SBJ: What’s your favorite way to consume black walnuts?
Hammons: I love them in desserts. One of my favorite things is black walnut sheet cake that my mother used to make. It’s mostly an ingredient nut. I’m always interested in how chefs are exploring various ways to use that flavor.
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