Waking up walnut’s potential in New York State

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by Courtney Llewellyn

How do you start a new farming enterprise? Sow seeds, grow plants, harvest. It seems simple enough – except sometimes those plants take years to grow to maturity. Sometimes the potential for a new crop is there, but a region’s climate may have other ideas. That’s not holding back the New York Nut Growers Association’s English Walnut Project, though.

The NYNGA, whose mission is to educate people on the benefits of nut trees and to provide cultural information to assist in growing nut trees for crops and timber, hosted its Fall Meeting in Penn Yan, NY, in mid-October. Carl Albers, English Walnut Project committee chair, led the presentation on that particular nut.

“We are interested in English walnuts because the nut dehisces from the husk, eliminating a messy processing step,” Albers explained. “English walnuts produce large nuts with a high percentage of nutmeats that crack out easily, taste good and are nutritious to eat. Unfortunately, they are not as well adapted to our climate as black walnuts are.” He said this is because English walnuts flower early and the flowers are frost sensitive, so cropping can be sporadic. They are also susceptible to walnut blight, so finding resistant cultivars is important.

“Our goal is to trial the best-known cultivars to see how they perform in different micro-climates across New York State,” he said.

The English walnut is the origin of cultivated varieties which produce edible walnuts. China is currently the largest commercial producer of these nuts, but growers in hospitable climates in the Northeast may be able to kick start a local industry in the near future.

Planting the Seed

“In a nutshell, we had a knowledgeable and enthusiastic nut grower, John Gordon from Amherst, NY, who got the ball rolling,” Albers said. “He worked with Ernie Grimo of Grimo Nut Nursery in Ontario, Canada, to distribute seed of some of the best English walnut cultivars known at that time (winter 2004).” A trial of six seedlings each from English walnut cultivars Combe, Harrison, I.S.U. 73H24, Lake and Papple was established at John Wertis’s farm in the spring of 2004. (Wertis is a former president of the NYNGA.) Those trees just started producing nuts for the first time in 2019, and the committee did some preliminary evaluation for ease of cracking and taste. Unfortunately, because of two late, hard frosts in 2020, on May 8 and again a few days later, there was no production to evaluate this year.

“Dealing with weather extremes is no different in growing nut trees in New York State as compared to just about any of the other crop grown here,” Albers said.

This past spring they also distributed eight sets of cultivars Ames, Bauer, Combe and North Platte, sourced from the Grimo Nut Nursery, to project cooperators. They’re planning to distribute cultivars Broadview and Young’s B1 to the same group in spring 2021. According to Albers, these six cultivars are the most cold hardy offered by the nut nursery and should do well in hardiness Zone 6 or warmer, but they may not be as well suited to Zone 5 growing sites. Suitability for growing at Zone 5 sites, relative walnut blight resistance, annual productivity and nut quality characteristics are things that can only be determined through grower testing. “This is a worthy though long-term project that will require years of dedicated volunteer involvement,” Albers said.

He explained that so far, English walnut tends to do well in Zone 6 locations, especially where productive fruit orchards and vineyards are nearby, so that the flowers are somewhat protected from late frosts due to cold lakes holding back early spring flowering – like in the Finger Lakes region. He noted that trees in those areas did produce a good crop of nuts this year.

Walnut Wealth?

According to the Merlo Farming Group, which is based in California – a state where walnuts are grown on a large scale – the price received for in-shell walnuts on Oct. 20 was 74 cents/pound. Prices have fluctuated over the past six years, from a high of $2.12/pound in October 2014 to 70 cents/pound in September 2018, but prices are projected to grow again. It depends on demand. Walnut meat, processed from its shell, will also receive higher prices.

“Going forward, we plan to continue to evaluate the currently best known English walnut cultivars/clones available,” Albers said. “We also are interested in finding healthy, productive English walnut trees across a variety of hardiness zone locations throughout New York State.”

The English Walnut Project is looking for trees that produce nuts most years which husk well, crack easily and taste good (sweet and/or nutty, with no bitterness). If anyone knows of such trees, especially in colder locations, the project committee would appreciate hearing about them (by sending an email to NYNutGrowers@gmail.com).

“We would appreciate hearing about superior English walnut trees and if possible, and as time permits, we would like to follow up with a visit, to collect nuts for cracking and taste evaluations, and potentially to collect scionwood so that we might propagate superior trees for further evaluation,” Albers said.

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