, , , , ,

Boom Times for Black Walnut

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”

, , ,

How to Fare Well in Canning Competitions

Rule of thumb: Stick with the standards

Once something of a dying art, home canning has enjoyed a mini resurgence as more and more people rediscover the joys of country living. And county fairs are a great place to see what others in your community are putting in jars — and maybe, if you’re up for a challenge, seeing how your efforts stack up against the competition.

If you’re hesitant to try your hand at canning for fear of making a mistake – or making someone ill — think about taking a course in canning. Local county extension offices offer classes that walk a would-be home canner through the dos and don’t of food-preservation safety.

Also, the USDA publishes time-tested canning guidelines and recipes on a “Complete Guide to Home Canning” webpage that’s easy to find and follow.

Judging in the home canning arts category is no joke to Shelly Barnes, an agriculture extension officer in Wilson County. Food safety is the number one concern for canned goods, she said.

What judges like to see are entries that have clearly been properly processed in clean mason jars, with brand new lids and rings.

So, for example, a bright red jar of tomato sauce that has not been processed long enough is sure to be skipped in favor of a browner product. And if your jelly jars are sticky with jam, that is an indication that something went wrong in processing and it will not likely winning a ribbon.

In fact, Barnes said she’s not above refusing to award a blue ribbon if no entry is worthy of one.

The Competitor View

Tapatha Ray of Smithville knows a few things about blue ribbons. Last year she won an astounding 55 of them in the Dekalb County Fair.

Her farm sells produce at the farmers market on Saturdays. But what doesn’t sell is carefully preserved for winter use by her customers and family. When county fair time arrives, Tapatha chooses samples from her store to submit for judging.

Ray said that in her experience, what “doesn’t work” is getting too creative in canning competitions and coming up with odd concoction and mixtures that judges likely haven’t seen before.

“One year I added bright red peppers to my pickles and those jars were not chosen, probably because they were not your usual pickle,” said Mrs. Ray.

Taste-Testing Taboo

It’s pretty obvious to anybody who’s tried them that home-canned foods taste better than their store-bought counterparts.

So it might seem a little strange that Tennessee fair judges don’t typically perform taste-tests on the contents of the jars they’re evaluating. Wilson County Fair’s Barnes said that’s because they have no way of knowing whether the submissions were in fact properly packed, processed and handled. And the equipment required to check for safety is expensive, she said.

In sum, if you want to make a winning impression at your local fair, choose your produce carefully, use proper mason jars, measure the “headspace” and make certain to follow established guidelines and conservative recipes.

Catching a judge’s eye in a good way often means signaling that you’re confident enough in your canning skills to put traditional simplicity to the competitive test.

Nicole Sauce is a homesteader, publisher, podcaster and local coffee roaster. Reach her at LivingFreeInTennessee.com.

, , , ,

Best Local Bets for a Good Cup of Joe

There’s obvious truth in the observation that unforeseen slips often come ‘twixt cup and lip. It’s easy to forget, though, that much goes into making the cup’s contents worthy of attempting a sip to begin with.

Local roasting experts agree that starting with freshly roasted coffee beans makes all the difference.

Coffee flavor stems from the bean itself and Eric Tate of Bootleg Roasting Company takes time to learn the best roasting profile for each bean he sells.

Bootleg specializes in a dark roast, but they have found certain high-end beans, such as those from Hawaii’s famed Kona Region, taste much better at a medium to light roast. BRC, derived their name as a joke about being a black-market bean provider: they were an underground source for fantastic coffee for their family and friends.

Calfkiller Brewing Company’s fire-roasted blend sprung from roaster Don Sergio’s love of a quality cup of coffee and a need for something special to add to a coffeehouse stout beer. After experimenting with a homemade contraption over an open fire, Sergio developed his own roasting system to take advantage of his unique take on flame-based roasting.

It isn’t too difficult to fashion your own intermediate-sized coffee roaster, like this one one built into a propane grill.

Roasters in our region all tell a similar tale that starts with equal parts love of good coffee and passion for local marketing. They began roasting at home, then grew to providing coffee for family and friends. They built their own intermediate-sized roasters – each adding a unique take on the concept. And as their skills developed, they took the plunge into the retail market.

Yet there is more to roasting coffee than simply applying heat to a green bean, according to Zach Buckner of Broast in Cookeville.

Ambient temperature, airflow and relative humidity can impact the speed of the roast as well as the flavor of the end product. Buckner compares using freshly roasted coffee to using fresh herbs.

Buckner says there is just no comparison between a coffee roasted four days ago and one that has been sitting on a shelf for six months. In sum: Freshness matters.

With the growing number of micro-roasters in the Upper Cumberland region, there is likely a fresh bean that meets the preference of any coffee drinker. Consider trying something new in your morning brew from a local craftsman.

Local Microroasters
● Calfkiller, Sparta: http://calfkillerbrewingco.storenvy.com/
● Broast, Cookeville: http://www.broasttn.com/
● Bootleg Roasting Co., Cookeville: https://www.facebook.com/bootlegroastingco/
● Holler Roast Coffee, Lancaster: HollerHomestead.com

Nicole Sauce is a local coffee roaster, backwoods podcaster and publisher of Center Hill Sun. Learn more about her homesteading endeavors at LivingFreeinTennessee.com.