Nut Grower’s Association Meets At Ittner Farm
On a humid September morning in the Ozarks, nut nuts of all varieties gathered at Dwight and Barb Ittner’s property in northern Noel. Nearly two dozen members of the Missouri Nut Grower’s Association convened to observe and discuss Dwight’s walnut harvesting, hulling, floating and drying techniques. Farmers of a variety of choice-grade nuts shared anecdotes and advice. Those present reported crops of persimmons, pawpaws, pecans, hardy citrus, elderberries, chestnuts and hickory nuts.
Dwight began the demonstration by shaking a walnut tree in order to collect and gather the nuts once they’ve fallen to the ground. He also displayed a new attachment on his tractor that clasps the tree mid-height and mechanically shakes the nuts free. As he does this, the ground quivers and the fresh, green smell of ripe walnuts permeates the air.
Rather than collecting each walnut by hand and depositing them into a bucket, Dwight introduced many members to a “nut wizard” which rolls over the ground and gathers the walnuts in a rolling, wire basket-like tool. A side panel is then opened and the nuts are poured into a bucket.
With one tree shaken, Dwight collected three buckets of unhulled walnuts, which equates to one bucket of hulled nuts.
To hull the nuts, Dwight uses innovative machinery made by Gerald Gardner out of Diamond. The attachment connects to a tractor and features a rubber tire with rebar curved and mounted on the perimeter. Dwight pours the walnuts into a dispenser above the tire and then patiently waits as the nuts are sifted down, pressed between the spinning tire and the rebar, and dropped — hulled — into a bucket below.
Dwight says he prefers this method because it is softer on the walnuts than the process at Hammons, which uses chains to hull the nut.
The exposed walnuts now need to be washed. Dwight uses an electric potato cleaner filled with a combination of rainwater and bleach.
“Other growers are known to use concrete mixers,” said Noel Fischer, MNGA member. Dwight noted that he previously used a concrete mixer before acquiring the potato cleaner at another nut farmer’s auction.
Clean nuts are then put into a tub of water where the “floaters” are scooped out and cast off. Dwight explained that walnuts that float are hollow with no nut inside, so they are sorted by floating to prevent wasted labor cracking duds.
These wet nuts are then weighed, totaling 27 pounds, and the data is recorded into Dwight’s logbook before the nuts are drained and placed on drying trays. The nuts will stay in these trays from October, when they’re harvested, until November, when they’re cracked.
Dwight said he deposits his harvest at Hammons in Stockton each December but holds close to 200 pounds back to sell personally at $13 each. He noted that most of these bags are spoken for come harvest time by other customers at Barb’s hairdresser.
Ailments to which nut trees are susceptible, proper spacing between plants, weather accommodations, unwanted critters and how to deter them, new machinery and grafting were topics of discussion as well. Grafting is a horticultural technique that joins two plants by combining tissue from both and allowing them to grow together over time.
The Ittners have more than 200 grafted trees in three plantings. Their property includes a certified Tree Farm that covers 120 acres, more or less.
Dwight and Barb Ittner met 52 years ago in the Zoology Department at Fort Hays State University in Kansas where Dwight was working on a master’s degree in zoology and freshman Barb was working as a departmental secretary. After a couple of years, Dwight decided that teaching at the university level wasn’t what he really wanted to do. A master’s degree in library science was soon added to his resume. Dwight worked as a science librarian at the University of Missouri for four years before moving to Fairbanks, Alaska, as the new university bio-medical librarian (later renamed bio-sciences) where he retired after 21 years. Dwight then took a year off to do a lot of cross-country skiing and help care for a baby grandson while his daughter completed her degree.
The Ittners returned to Missouri in the fall of 1997 to care for Dwight’s mother. Dwight subsequently received 129 acres of hills and rocks. Because native walnut grew on the site, a nut orchard was started in 1999 with six black walnut seedlings. The one-man operation became a certified tree farm a few years later. There are now three orchard sites with about 250 black walnut and two heartnut trees.
Phil Moore sorts through draining wet nuts and inspects them. A number of variables effect the quality of a nut, including kernel size, nut meat and shell depth, many of which cannot be seen until the nuts are cracked.
Dwight Ittner removes any floaters from a batch of walnuts. If a walnut floats, there is no nut inside and it is considered a dud.