Heartland Nuts 'N More
Recipient of 2006 USDA Value Added Producer grant.
Every year at the Nebraska State Fair, members of the Nebraska Nut Growers Association staffed the fairgrounds in Lincoln and sold bags of stratified walnuts and pecans for planting.
Through their efforts, they created a statewide network of walnut and pecan growers who, over the years, began to see increasing yields from their small orchards. And yet very few of them had planned for distribution.
The solution was Heartland Nuts ‘N More, a Valparaiso, Nebraska-based cooperative of 44 native black walnut and pecan growers from Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. Founded in late 2003, the co-op purchases products from its members, then processes and bags the nuts to be sold nationwide.
Larry Martin, a board member and nut producer who operates the co-op’s Valparaiso operation, said Heartland Nuts ‘N More is one of several nut grower cooperatives in the United States, but that it is unique in its method of processing. The co-op is specific to grafted, improved variety black walnuts, he said.
“We are the only processor that is exclusive to grafted cultivars,” he said.
The method followed begins with a black walnut or pecan seedling or seed being planted and allowed to grow for three to four years. A piece of scion wood is then cut from an already producing tree and grafted to the seedling. The tree will provide produce in another three to four years.
Grafting trees, Martin said, speeds the time between when a tree is planted and when nuts are able to be harvested. What takes six to seven years using the grafted method would otherwise take 14 years.
Native black walnuts are plentiful in the farms, creeks and pastures of Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, Martin said.
Though pecans are more commonly grown in southern states, the Midwest’s shorter growing season “makes our pecans a lot more flavorful and more nutritional,” he said. Testing done on the co-op’s pecans at the University of Nebraska confirmed that assertion, he said.
Heartland Nuts ‘N More processed about 60,000 pounds of black walnuts with their husk last year. That equated to about 4,000 pounds of nut meats.
Though the Midwestern climate has been ideal for producing pecans and black walnuts, Heartland Nuts ‘N More has learned that Mother Nature is not always on its side.
The extremely cold weather in the early part of spring in 2007 eliminated all pecans from Oklahoma to Nebraska and east all the way to Georgia. The co-op was able to purchase pecans from growers in some southern states and produce a product.
In 2008, Martin expects to process about 8,000 pounds of pecans, similar to its production numbers in 2006.
However, Mother Nature took another swing at nut growers this year, with a cold, wet spring that will drastically reduce the black walnut crop.
One of the biggest bulkheads that Heartland Nuts ‘N More has run into is in efforts to market its products to buyers, Martin said. The group visits grocery stores and runs promotional events at community festivals, for example.
Most of its business is through wholesale orders from buyers such as the University of Nebraska’s dining services. It has several buyers in Oklahoma, where the black walnut will not grow, and several grocery stores in Lincoln carry its products.
But the growers often find people who are reluctant to buy black walnuts. Perhaps they, in the past, had exercised every method possible to crack the nuts. Or maybe they had waited until the nut turned black before cracking into it. By then, Martin said, the black discoloration has permeated the shell, leaving the nut meat with a sour flavor.
At Heartland Nuts ‘N More, however, it removes the husk from the walnut while it is still green, preserving the flavor.
“If they try them, they like them,” Martin said. “But it’s tough to get them to try them.
Heartland Nuts ‘N More calls home a 5,000-square-foot building on Main Street in Valparaiso. The building functions as a retail store as well as a processing and packaging facility.
The co-op took out loans to purchase the building, and in 2006 received a USDA Value Added Producer Grant to make building upgrades and to purchase equipment and some product, as well as a computer and other office supplies needed to get the business off the ground.
The co-op purchased hullers from a former processor in Centerville, Iowa, and also purchased high-end sorting equipment, which sorts the nut meat from the shell. Also added to the facility was a drying and sorting table, where the walnuts and pecans undergo a personal inspection. The nuts are laid out on the table and employees conduct a thorough inspection, removing fragments of shells before the nuts are packaged.
Martin said successes have been hard to come by in Heartland Nuts ‘N More’s short history, particularly because of the difficulties the co-op has faced in getting its products in front of the general public.
But co-op members continue to create new avenues to introduce their black walnuts and pecans to the public. That will be an ongoing effort in the years to come.
Martin also intends to recruit more local producers, limiting the co-op’s need to travel long distances to purchase product.
He said the plant’s processing and sorting areas are in need of improvement. But the high cost of such a project is beyond their current capabilities. They intend to apply for additional grant funding in 2009.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)