Scavenging
Missouri’s natural nuts.

Each year, Jefferson City’s parks and trails are littered with green, tennis-ball-like nuts that are tough on lawnmowers but good for people’s health. They are Missouri’s official state tree nut — the eastern black walnut. 

This native tree nut became the official Missouri state tree nut in 1990, which makes sense since Missouri is the largest producer of eastern black walnuts in the United States. The nut’s legitimacy was cemented with Missouri’s declaration of Black Walnut Week in September of 2023 at the Black Walnut Festival in Stockton, Missouri. 

“Our state is a world leader of black walnut production,” says Christi Miller, communications director with the Missouri Department of Agriculture. “Eastern black walnut trees grow wild across much of the state of Missouri; thus, much of the black walnut harvest is collected from wild trees.” 

Residents don’t have to look far to find a black walnut tree around Mid-Missouri. Black walnut trees can be found all along the greenways, trails, and parks in Jefferson City. 

“A great place to find walnut trees is the pasture around Binder Park,” says Kevin Schwartz, outdoor recreation program manager with JC Parks. 

“Money does grow on trees; you just have to pick it up.” 

Emily Libbert

Black walnuts remain one of the few crops that are still foraged in Missouri today. Once fall rolls around, it’s prime time to gather the homegrown nuts. Black walnuts are easily identified by their small green globes that work as protective husks that cover the hard-to-crack nut. Once a black walnut crop is harvested, it can be taken to a network of buying stations, or hullers, in Missouri. 

“It’s really not very hard,” says Emily Libbert, who collects walnuts on her family’s many acres as well as her own property in Meta, Missouri. “Money does grow on trees; you just have to pick it up.”

Emily began collecting walnuts as a child with her family and now makes collecting walnuts a family affair with her husband, Trevor, and their three children. 

“It took a little bit of convincing my kids at first, but they’ve been able to buy some pretty nice things out of it over the years, so now they know that it’s worth it.”

In 2021, Emily and her family earned $1000 for their walnut harvest. Each year, they use their walnut money to buy something for the family; in 2021, they purchased an above-ground pool and two blue heeler puppies. That year, walnuts were going for $20 per hundred pounds. In 2023, prices for walnuts were $16 per hundred pounds. 

“We collect most of our walnuts by hand,” Emily adds. “This year, we tried to use the rolling harvesters, but we found they didn’t work as well as we hoped.”  

Although many individuals collect walnuts from trees in their yards and parks, there are also dedicated orchards for tree nuts. Tree nut farming falls under the broad category of agroforestry, which is a system that integrates trees with agricultural crops to create sustainable and multi-use agriculture. Missouri is fortunate to have the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri, which is one of the world’s leading centers contributing to the science of agroforestry, the integration of trees and shrubs into agricultural landscapes. The research farm, located in New Franklin, hosts regular field days and tours. Ronald Revord, PhD, is an assistant research professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in tree nut breeding, genetics, and horticulture. 

“Tree nut application has a wide audience,” Ronald says. “There can be trees in your backyard for household use, and there are commercial growers that use these trees to complement a diverse agriculture.” 

“Our state is a world leader of black walnut production. Eastern black walnut trees grow wild across much of the state of Missouri; thus, much of the black walnut harvest is collected from wild trees.” 

Christi Miller, Communications Director, Missouri Department of Agriculture

Current research consists of looking for methods to move black walnut harvesting from wild harvests to orchard production, which can increase yields and improve uniformity. The Missouri Nut Growers Association is an organization that is dedicated to promoting and supporting the growth of nut trees, both as a hobby and commercially. The group has roughly 80-100 members, all interested in nut tree culture in Missouri. Jefferson City hosts the association’s annual meeting and nut show where nut enthusiasts enjoy lunch, discuss trends and issues, and have various contests for a variety of nuts.

“Thousands of Missourians continue longstanding traditions each fall by gathering black walnuts that have fallen to the ground,” Ronald says. “Those nuts are then delivered to hulling stations found across Missouri. Hammons Black Walnuts is the world’s leading processor of black walnuts. This family business is based in Stockton, Missouri.” 

The popularity of this nut continues to grow, as does the demand for harvesters to head outside to pick the fallen crop. It is important to get permission to collect nuts that are on other people’s property and to check with state and local foraging laws. 

As for JC Parks property, visitors may collect walnuts once they’ve fallen to the ground for personal use. Just be sure to leave some for the squirrels.