The 2005 Southern Ohio fall seemed particularly beautiful at Straight Creek Valley
Farm. Perhaps it was because the weather stayed so warm, well up into the seventies in
the middle of October! I had a hard time deciding if I wanted to sit on the front porch
swing and just watch the leaves fall, or walk down our gravel road, listening to the sound
of the crackling leaves under my feet. And speaking of falling leaves, this was the fall that
I learned quite a bit about falling black walnuts and how to harvest, or how not to, harvest
Shortly after we bought the farm, we realized that we had countless black walnut trees
along both the creek and the gravel road that leads back to our property. I decided that
we should learn how to harvest some of the walnuts, so I read as much as I could find and
asked our farm neighbors about what they knew. Everyone advised me that the toughest
job was to get the thick green hull off of the nut. Some advised me to put the hulls in a
sack, or pillow case, and repeatedly drive over them in the driveway with my truck. I have
not tried this option yet. One fellow advised me that I could run the walnuts through an
old manual corn husker. This seemed more to our mechanical liking, so we began to
look for corn huskers at flea markets and auctions. We found one, an iron, hand cranked
old beauty. It has a spring loaded feeder shoot at the top and a round spiked disc that
turns against the husk so that the huskless nut falls out at the bottom.
My husband Greg mounted the husker on one end of an old saw horse so that I could
straddle the horse with the husker in front of me, pick up a nut from a bucket to my right,
place it in the shoot, crank with my right hand and catch the huckless nut as it fell out of
the shoot with my left hand. We then set out to collect the fallen nuts. It seems that the
best time to harvest the walnuts in southern Ohio is mid to late October. We tried picking
some off of the trees, but the nut meat was not fully developed, so it seemed that
patience was in order. We ended up waiting until the nuts fell and then we gathered them
up as soon as possible, before critters and bugs had a chance to get into them.
Once I had collected my nuts, I set them in a bucket on the right side of my saw horse. I
placed another bucket, half filled with water, on the left side of the horse and off I went,
happily cranking off the hulls and putting the almost fleshless nuts in the bucket to my
left. I had read that the worm eaten, or rotted, nuts would float to the top of the water and
were not worth the time to shell. A few did float and these nuts I set aside (I later washed
off the remaining hull, let them dry, coated them with them polyurethane, placed small
hook eyes in their tops, threaded red ribbon through the eyes and made Christmas
ornaments!) The nuts that did not float, I kept for later cracking and eating.
Now I had also read, and heard from my farm neighbors, that walnuts stain and that the
stain is impossible to remove from clothes or skin. I accordingly wore leather gloves to
protect my hands from the stain, and my sturdy work overalls to protect my body. After
an hour of contented cranking, when I removed my gloves, wet with walnut juice, I was
amazed to see that the wetness had passed right through the leather and that my hands
were totally stained. My fingertips were completely black and my fingernails were a deep
burnt orange. When I later removed my overalls to shower I was equally amazed to see
that my inner thighs were also stained a dark black. Apparently the walnut hulls had
accumulated on the horse between my thighs and the juice had seeped through the
denim to my skin below. My husband laughed. My colleagues at my city job also
laughed for the next two weeks as I explained to each new person I encountered the
reason for the discoloration on my hands.
So for my second turn at the hulling machine, I wore rubber gloves under my leather work
gloves. I was afraid that the sharp walnut shells would pierce the rubber if I wore the
rubber gloves alone, and the combination worked out quite well. I was also careful not to
let the hulls accumulate between my thighs on the horse.
After I was done with the hulling, I removed the sunken nuts form the water bucket and lay
them out to dry on racks in the tobacco barn. Greg built the racks out of left over window
screening material and old lumber.
After two weeks of drying I then set out to crack the nuts. This too was not a simple task.
We tried to hammer the nuts on stone, but our fingers seemed in jeopardy with this
system. We used our shop vice, and this worked well, but was time consuming. Finally,
one evening, while looking through our Lehman’s catalogue, I found a black walnut
sheller! It was not cheep. It cost about $70.00, but it was well worth the price. It has a
long handle that gives the necessary leverage and can be mounted to any surface. We
mounted ours on a four foot section of four by four that I can place on either the ground
or a work bench, indoors or out, depending on where I want to do the shelling.
I had also read that the nut meat is less likely to break apart if the nuts are soaked, for a
short time, before cracking. This technique has worked well, but once again requires the
use of rubber gloves, for the dried remains of the hull on the nut are still capable of
There is no doubt about it, harvesting black walnuts is a time consuming task, but the
nuts taste wonderful. We have only gathered enough for our own use, but the time is well
worth the effort. And an added perk to the process is the joy of walking down our country
road and gathering up the fallen nuts. And then there is the joy of sitting on an old saw
horse beside the barn, cranking away and smelling the almost citrus aroma of the hulls as
they fall of in the husker. And I especially treasure the wonderful flavor of warm oatmeal
topped with our own walnuts on a cold fall morning!