Black Walnut Hulls: Turning Trash into Treasure

Final Report for FNC05-571

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $5,847.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Christopher Chmiel
Integration Acres Ltd.
Expand All

Project Information


Integration Acres is a small family farm operation based in Albany, Ohio. We started with an 18-acre homestead. We designed and built a passive solar house with over 400 rammed earth tires in our foundation. We also developed gardens, pawpaw patches, pawpaw orchards, a sugar bush and small pasture. About 5 years ago my parents bought a 32-acre cow dairy farm down the hill from our homestead. Since then we’ve been working on developing this farm for use with our milking goatherd of twenty. In 2006 we became an Ohio Department of Ag. inspected farmstead cheese operation. We are currently working on developing this farm’s fences and facilities.

In 1992 I graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Specialized Studies with a focus on “Holistic Transition to Sustainability”. I’ve tried to incorporate sustainable practices into my personal life as well as my agricultural based business. I’ve worked longest with pawpaw production and processing. Some of this work was previously funded by two SARE producer grants. This work has been going on since 1994. I slowly incorporated goats into my operation and have had a small herd since 1998. I’ve been black walnut hulling since 2003.

The main goal is to turn a current waste product of eastern black walnut hulls into something of value to the approximately 260 Hammon’s hulling operations scattered about the Midwest. Instead of being a waste problem, these hulls can be developed for use and sale. This additional product and market can help make a hulling operation more stable and profitable.

Process: In my area I was able to get several different free materials; shredded leaves, wood chips and barn bedding, to incorporate into piles of the black walnut hulls. My idea was that the straight hulls would benefit from the additional items and possibly create better compost and mulch products. These additional items also created larger piles, which meant more products to sell. I had the piles tested for a compost analysis. This certificate of analysis showed that the compost piles had a pH around 7, with high amounts of minerals and organic matter.

I then started to use, share with the other cooperators in the grant and sell these compost and mulch mixes. I observed my personal experiments on my garden, pawpaw nursery and pawpaw orchards. I also started to get feedback from folks on their observations and thoughts. Everything seemed to grow well for me, from garden vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes to the pawpaw starts in the nursery. The one thing I noticed was that the barn bedding black walnut hull mix did produce some weeds, while the shredded leaves black walnut hull compost didn’t seem to have the weeds. The wood chip black walnut hull mulch was excellent mulch for perennials and trees in the orchard, especially since there was a drought last summer.

I also did general research on this topic of using black walnut hulls as compost and mulch. I gathered articles via the Internet and shared these ideas with the contributors and customers. I also called several other hulling stations to discuss their current usage and interest in this topic. Most of the hulling stations currently place little or no value on the hulls. Hammons doesn’t really provide much support for utilizing the hulls. They are very excited about this project and will be including the brochure in future mailings to hulling stations.
Matt Starline of Willow Run Organics participated as an organic vegetable producer. He tested the barn bedding black walnut compost on various crops he grows – soybeans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, bush beans, and 4 varieties of onions. In his experiments he placed the walnut compost next to plots that used the aged horse manure and sawdust compost, which is more acidic compost. He will continue observing beds into the future.

Mason Chambers of Five Spring Farms was a contributing nurseryman and landscaper. He used primarily the wood chip black walnut hull mulch in amending beds for planting. His main concerns were that the compost was not very uniform and extremely messy. He had several suggestions for making the compost more acceptable for him including more compost turning as well as storing it on a concrete pad.

Josh Beniston of Habitats Landscaping used primarily the barn bedding black walnut hull compost. He was very happy with the product, but did mention the temporary staining that occurred. He also noted that this product provided a needed niche for an “organic” soil amendment in our local area.

Neal Dix of Shade Winery used the barn bedding black walnut hull compost for mulching in plantings of elderberries that he grows for his winery. He noticed that the plantings did extremely well and will observe the long term affects.

Doug Albaugh, a local blueberry grower, used both the wood chip black walnut mulch and the barn bedding black walnut hull compost for mulching around several well established blueberry bushes. He also used the barn bedding black walnut hull compost in his garden. Initial observations were positive and he will be involved in long term observations.

Rory Lewandowski, Athens County OSU Extension agent, assisted with compost analysis and outreach to others in the community for potential sales. He also helped review the brochure.

Tom Rutledge, Director of Procurement for Hammons Products Company, helped review the brochure, was also a technical resource for information on the hulls. Tom provided address labels for all the hulling stations. He was also sent several hundred of the brochures which he will make available to hulling stations in the future.

I would say that overall my project was a success. I believe with a little more time and effort, I will be able to sell and / or fully utilize all of my black walnut hulls. In just this first year of compost sales, I was able to sell approximately $500 worth of compost. Between sales and folks helping with the grant I was able to sell and / or utilize more than half of my stock of compost and mulch products.

I also learned a great deal about the black walnut hulls and the process of turning them into compost and mulch products. Getting the certificate of analysis done on the straight hulls, the compost mixes and mulches was really eye opening and encouraging. Instead of being some highly acidic and potentially hazardous substance, I learned that by adding the additional materials and composting them for a year or more, they basically wound up having a pH of 7 and were full of valuable soil nutrients and organic matter. This neutral to alkaline pH wasn’t what I or most other people had expected. My initial idea of using the hull products as a peat moss substitute was under the assumption that the pH was significantly lower.

By working with several different individuals and operations I was able to get feedback about the products being developed and ways to make them better for their applications. Some of the applications were for short-term crops like vegetable starts, vegetable crops, and tree starts. In these situations we were able to get some good solid observations that showed certain crops and how uses of the products worked.

Other demonstration projects will now become case studies for long-term observations. In these situations, where the mulch is being used on perennial crops or the compost is used in perennial beds, no detrimental affects were noticed but many people have a cautious wait and see attitude.

In general, my compost and mulch mixes could have been better overall products, but my lack of a front end loader on the farm has significantly hindered my ability to turn compost piles regularly. This added turning would have eliminated some of the mucky parts or the poorly composted parts that created problems in the field.

I learned a great deal about black walnut hulls and the process of making and selling larger piles of composts and mulches. This process has convinced me even more the value and special uses of these hulls and hull products. This has increased my farm sales and has encouraged me to contemplate some future purchases that will help me make better compost. For example, I could see how a tractor with a front-end loader would help me turn the compost to make a better product. It would also help me load trucks efficiently and this would result in additional sales. I guess if I could sell all my hulls I could see these sales helping pay for this purchase. I could also see needing to invest in a large concrete pad for making better compost and mulch products.

Now that I know that the hulls have a higher pH, I’m really thinking about additional farm crops that require this type of pH. My hay and pasture fields may not require the additional input of lime if I spread these hulls on the fields. I am also interested in developing crops that can utilize this alkaline pH, like asparagus and sweet potatoes.

The big advantage of this project is that currently these hulls are worth little to no value to most of the hulling operations, including my own. So the advantage is that my hulling station or other hulling stations really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by developing and selling the hull products.

The only disadvantage of this project is that it does take additional work. The main obstacle seems to be the almost intuitive consumer fear of using black walnut related products in the garden. Fortunately, most of these assumptions have actually been proven to be wrong with this grant project. Finding out the accurate pH of the hulls and the hull products has, I think, shed a great deal of light on what these hulls can be best used for.

If asked by other hulling stations about this project, I would definitely say this idea is worth pursuing. I also feel like the Hammons Company is also very interested in this project and I believe they will also continue to pursue and promote these ideas. Tom Rutledge thinks that if this takes off, they may be able to attract more hulling stations, because of the increased revenue for the hulling stations.

I was able to sell around $500 worth of compost products in the first year. I also believe that I will continue to sell or fully utilize all of my compost and mulch stock in the coming year. If the other 260 hulling stations can do at least this much in sales, this could mean more than $130,000 in additional farm sales from this current “waste” product.

Luckily I live in a community that has a very strong agricultural and social component, the Athens Farmers Market. This well attended local market gave me an excellent pedestal to communicate with household consumers and other agricultural producers. Every time I talked to people about the hull products I was selling, I mentioned this SARE project and its goals.

I also give talks to various groups around the state. I have developed a small power point presentation for this black walnut hull project. I have shown it to several groups now including at Rural Action’s landowners conference, where I dedicated part of my presentation to this topic. About 25 people attended my workshop. I hope to also put this power point presentation on my website at some point.

I sent the brochures about this project to all the 260 eastern black walnut hulling stations working with the Hammons Company from Stockton, Missouri. I also did a bit of calling around to the hulling stations during the project to assess the current level of hull usage and interest in this project. I also believe that Hammons will continue to include this project’s brochure in with their huller information packets for now on.

Overall I really like the flexibility allowed to this producer grant program. I feel like the guidelines were easy to work with and allowed creativity to flourish for me. I had to change my project along the way a little bit here and there and I’m glad that this program allows this flexibility. I believe this allowed me to develop a more adaptable and successful project in the end.

The only thing I wouldn’t mind more of is a bit more involvement from other SARE folks. I didn’t really ask for any help, but in reality, I probably could have used a mentor type of person at times along the way. I think a mentor type of person could be a neat aspect to include to this program.


Participation Summary

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.