What if there was a food crop hanging from trees that line your neighborhood streets — delicious and versatile, rich in unsaturated fats, fiber and minerals? What if it was available for free, yours for the picking? And what if it also required minimal human input, fertilizers, or pesticides, created wildlife habitat, reduced erosion, and sequestered carbon while growing?
If you live in most parts of temperate North America, that food is already out there. You guessed it: it’s nuts. There’s a bounty of native nuts and acorns growing all around us, largely untapped by human beings.
But if you’ve ever processed nuts and acorns on your own — cracking, de-hulling, leaching, grinding — you know it’s an arduous process. And that’s why the words “collective nut processing” will quickly grab your attention.
In Asheville, North Carolina, where I live, an innovative nut foragers’ collective is removing the obstacles that keep us from incorporating local nuts into our diets. It’s the Asheville Nuttery, a cooperatively owned nut processing facility. Anyone can join to be a forager for the project. Foragers pick black walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts and bring them to the Nuttery; the Nuttery team processes them, and foragers get their share of processed nuts, or oils, or flour at the end of the season.
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Historically, acorns and nuts were a staple food for Native Americans, as well as in many parts of Europe and Asia. Some of the oak and pecan groves that still stand in our landscapes date back to a time when people harvested from those trees for their sustenance. But in the past two centuries, the overwhelming dominance of annual grains in our diets has made acorn-based and native nut-based foods a rare curiosity.
There’s enormous potential for an economic and culinary revival around nuts and acorns. With their nutty and complex flavors, they are a real delicacy. They are among our most nutritious foods, versatile to cook with, and store well. Nut and acorn flours can be substituted for wheat flour in many recipes, making them a great gluten-free option.
In 2014, a group of agroforestry enthusiasts in Asheville, North Carolina came together to bridge this gap — to create a model for growing and processing native nuts and acorns that would be both ecologically and economically viable. They met through the Buncombe County Fruit and Nut Club, a volunteer group that plants and cares for fruit and nut trees in parks and other public places in Asheville, and began to develop a vision for growing and processing nuts on a large scale. They identified two limiting factors: the cost of land, and the time it takes for nut trees to bear a crop (about 10-15 years).
Planting food in public places pointed the way around the first obstacle. “We were planting fruit and nut trees in public parks,” says Justin Holt, one of the group of five, “and I started to get my head around the idea of trees as a kind of commonwealth — how we can serve so much more than just ourselves if we think outside the box of only our own yards.” It was a simple insight: you don’t need to own land to plant on it.
The five friends organized themselves as the Nutty Buddy Collective, and started reaching out to local conservation-minded landowners who had underutilized land. They negotiate 99-year lease agreements with these landowners that allow them to plant and maintain nut orchards and harvest crops from them. For compensation, the landowner receives a percentage of the harvests. The Nutty Buddies planted the first orchard of mostly black walnuts in 2014. Their plantings have now expanded to include hickory, chestnut, hazelnut, pawpaw, aronia, elderberry, apples and pears.
While waiting for their nut orchards to mature, the Nutty Buddies decided to start foraging nuts from the existing nut trees in the region, and developing the equipment necessary for processing them. This led to the creation of The Asheville Nuttery. As of early 2019, the Nutty Buddy Collective and the Nuttery are two independent but inter-related enterprises. A third entity, the Acornucopia Project, is developing and marketing new food products based on the nuts harvested and processed in this way, such as oils, nut flours, and crackers.
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If there’s a pun with “nuts” or “nutty” in it, it’s been heard at the Nuttery. But it’s not just jokes that are cracked here: the Nuttery is a pioneering cooperative facility for processing local, collectively foraged wild nuts. Located at a former greenhouse complex with gritty charm outside of West Asheville, the nut depot reflects the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude of the team members, all of whom have other day jobs. On any given day in the fall season, you can find them here sorting and weighing nuts, packing them in mesh bags, and greeting people who come to drop off their foraged nuts.
The idea of the Nuttery was sparked, in part, by how olives are often processed in Southern Europe: a village has a community oil press, and people can bring the olives from their trees to be pressed and leave with their own olive oil share. Similarly, the Nuttery is a place where anyone can bring in acorns and other wild nuts to be processed into flour and oil. Foragers can trade what they pick either for cash or for a forager’s share of the processed nuts.
The Nuttery is also where the team members are developing innovative processing equipment. Accessible, small-scale equipment for cracking, de-hulling, pressing and grinding nuts and acorns is hard, if not impossible, to find. So the Nuttery is building its own. One example of the low-tech solutions I have witnessed in action is a de-huller for black walnuts: a former lime spreader attached to a tractor. Works like a charm.
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Two years ago, I became one of the nut foragers for the Nuttery. I took a nut tree identification class. I got my buckets and sacks ready.
The next thing that happened is that I started to look at my neighborhood a little differently.
Nut trees — massive old nut trees — are everywhere where I live. They grow on people’s backyards. They line the streets. They provide shade in parks, school playgrounds, and cemeteries. Most of the time, people don’t even think of them as producing an edible crop; that is how far removed we are culturally from incorporating local nuts in our diets. Even when they drop their thousands of pounds of acorns, black walnuts, hickories and chestnuts onto streets and sidewalks, it’s mostly the squirrels that are thrilled; homeowners and car drivers tend to be annoyed. Gathering tennis ball-sized black walnuts or prickly chestnuts in public parks, I have more than once gotten the reaction, “You mean those are edible?”
The most transformative part about becoming a forager is that you start to notice. You start putting together a mental map of nut trees in your neighborhood. You pay attention to the shape of the leaves and the telltale stains on the sidewalk and start planning your trips around town around the location of particularly promising trees. You work up the courage to go talk to a neighbor you’ve never met before to ask if you could collect acorns from her oak tree. Before you know it, you see the place where you live differently. Not only has it turned into a landscape from which you can harvest edible crops, but it also feels more like a village now that you’ve connected with former strangers.
The bounty comes in. On Saturdays in the late fall, foragers haul five-gallon bucket after five-gallon bucket to the Nuttery depot for de-hulling and cracking. Each drop-off trip feels a little festive: we are contributing to a collective project of shifting more of our calories to the local area, and shifting towards a more cooperative, perennial-based food system.
In December, I received my share of nuts: 18 pounds of de-hulled and cracked black walnuts. We foragers gathered for an end-of-the-season celebration where we got to sample some innovative nut and acorn-based delicacies: acorn flour crackers, hickory and black walnut oils, nut “cheeses,” nut-based pesto, acorn “olives” and acorn-based chocolate desserts.
And here, of course, is the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. Because we’re rediscovering forgotten flavors, and inventing new ones, and both make for a good adventure.
Interview with Justin Holt of the asheville nuttery
One of the challenges to the wider adoption of locally grown nut-based foods is the lack of cultural knowledge around harvesting, processing and cooking with nuts and acorns. How do you address that?
Justin: Working to align our cultural values and practices with trees and perennial agriculture is more important to me than planting trees.
Sure, it’s important to be out there planting the trees and developing the infrastructure – but what’s matters to me most is engaging our community about this. That’s what has made it feasible for us to do what we do now: we are able to access land because we’ve negotiated leases with landowners, and we get such a large supply of nuts because we’ve involved the community in foraging nuts. Community engagement is in the DNA of both the Acornucopia Project and the Nutty Buddy Collective.
In many ways, you have to change people’s perceptions of what counts as food.
JH: Yes. When we go to events, there’s often a handful of people who seem mildly interested in, say, acorn flour, and they say, “Oh, I didn’t know you could eat that….” And then they move on. But maybe they go home and tell a friend about it, or maybe they come back next year and actually taste the product. Slowly, people become more curious. The flavors are strong, and some people get excited about the novelty factor. They just have to wrap their head around how they might want to use the product in cooking.
One of the new edges we’re trying to work is partnering with chefs at local restaurants. Chefs are very influential in what people will consider as cool and exciting. If a food item shows up on the menu of a fancy restaurant, and they’re featuring it, and they’re excited about it – that raises awareness. Recently, we had a fundraiser dinner, and chefs at OWL Bakery, Plant, and West Village Bakery all contributed. Seeing nut-based and acorn-based foods being adopted by restaurants also raises awareness about our foraging efforts, and brings in more people who want to participate.
What are some of the main challenges you’re encountering?
JH: One challenge is that we’re working with about a dozen different nut species. Each one has their own characteristics and quirks in terms of how you process them — post-harvest handling, curing, storage — so there are a lot of moving parts.
Marketing is also a challenge. We believe there’s actually a massive demand for nut-based products out there: so many people are looking for alternatives to meat and gluten in their diets, and nut and acorn-based foods can provide both. The challenge is figuring out how to get the products in front of the right people and understand their value.
A part of your larger vision is to inspire nut depots like yours to spring up everywhere. Tell me more about what you’d like to see happening.
JH: We’re giving presentations at various events and farming conferences and essentially laying out our business model, hoping some people will adopt it and decide to cooperate rather than compete with us. Some amount of competition is good; it creates a buzz. I’d love to see someone else start selling acorn oil and raise awareness about it! But the possibility of cooperation is really strong, too. One of the issues with nut trees is they don’t produce consistently each year. If we had a network of nut depots in different regions, we could be co-organizing to harvest in whichever local the mast year is.
What would you say to readers who live in another part of the country, or the world, and get excited about your vision and business model?
JH: Get in touch with us, ask us a lot of questions, check out our websites (nuttybuddycollective.com and www.acornucopiaproject.com). Start picking up nuts and figuring out how to work with them. I might suggest picking 2-3 species to start with, and first learning how to be really efficient with those before taking on more.