Some people go nuts cleaning up those green-husked grenades that drop from walnut trees every fall, but one local family decided to turn the nuisance into a delicacy.

For the past five years, the Owens family has lived on a 3-acre hobby farm between Kasson and Dodge Center. Over the years, they’ve raised pigs, turkeys, rabbits and chickens. Currently, their two “guard geese” keep their flock of egg-laying ducks safe. The geese became a necessity after one of their unlucky ducks was snatched by a bald eagle last spring.

This fall, the Owenses decided to embark on a new harvesting endeavor. The adventure began when 14-year-old Benjamin said he wanted to try harvesting black walnuts, an experience that might become a 4-H project.

They had planted four black walnut trees on their farm. In past years, the falling walnuts have been something the Owenses endured.

“We have to pick them up prior to mowing, or they become projectiles,” said Benjamin’s mother, Donna.

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After looking up some videos on YouTube, the family decided to give harvesting their black walnuts a try.

In early October, Donna, along with her two sons Benjamin and 13-year-old Gavin, spent several hours collecting all the walnuts that covered their lawn. Most of the thick-hulled nuts were about the size of golf balls, but one tree that just began producing this year dropped bigger ones.

“This fourth tree produced walnuts the size of baseballs,” Donna said.

After collecting the nuts, Donna and Benjamin waited several days before they began processing them to get them ready to dry. It was a messy process.

“The hulls stain everything, including your skin,” Donna said.

Donna and Benjamin would pour about 10 gallons of walnuts into large, clean trash cans. Then they added enough water to let the nuts move around easily. They took turns using a drill with a cement mixer attached to pulverize the hulls on the immersed nuts.

“We would mix the nuts until there was a brown slurry and we could see hulls floating to the top,” Donna explained.

Then, the nuts were poured through a chicken-wire strainer to remove the separated hulls and power-washed until the hard shells under the hulls were clean.

With the hard shells of the walnuts revealed, they were put in water once again to give them a final cleaning and also to separate any of the hard shells that were empty.

“A floating nut is a bad nut or no nut at all,” Donna said.

The next step involved laying the good nuts out in a single layer to dry for a week. The Owenses took advantage of their leftover cleaned rabbit cages for drying racks.

After drying outside for about a week, Donna and Gavin put the nuts in burlap sacks they got from friends at Trail Creek Coffee Roasters in Kasson. The final step was letting the walnuts cure for more than four weeks, during which time they would be shuffled around to make sure they dried evenly.

Donna looked online and found a company in Missouri that makes a nutcracker designed specifically for black walnuts. The nutcracker, though it was worth the wait, took about five weeks to arrive.

“Black walnuts are notorious for being very difficult to crack and difficult to get decent-size pieces of nut meat,” Donna said. “This nutcracker cracks the nut just right.”

While they waited for the nutcracker to arrive, Benjamin and Gavin tried cracking black walnuts with a hammer. Since the nutcracker arrived, the brothers have been cracking black walnuts almost every day. Benjamin said that cracking the walnuts is his favorite part of the process. They keep the few shelled nuts that aren’t eaten in glass containers in the fridge.

The Owenses enjoy snacking on their black walnuts right out of the shell and say their walnuts have a different flavor than English walnuts. They describe the flavor as almost “fruity” and different from anything available at the grocery store. It’s a good thing the Owenses like the flavor of their black walnut harvest because they ended up harvesting 171 pounds of them.

Donna would encourage anyone with black walnut trees to try harvesting.

“It was such a great discovery,” she said. “We considered these trees to be such a nuisance in the past, and they turned out to be a great food source that we had no hand in creating.”

Perhaps what she enjoyed most of all, though, was working on a project with her boys and tasting the product of their hard work together.

Fun facts

  • A 1-ounce serving of black walnuts includes 7 grams of protein.
  • Black walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may help promote heart health and regulate cholesterol levels.
  • Black walnut trees belong to the Juglandaceae family and are native to North America. Their scientific name is Juglans nigra.
  • Besides their tasty nut meat, black walnuts have other uses. Walnut shells are used in a wide variety of products, including exfoliating cosmetics, stuffed-animal filler, rubber snow tires, artificial turf, and water-filtration systems.
  • Black walnut hulls can be used to create dyes and ink.