HED:Planting for the future
By Errol Castens
It’s an axiom among farmers: If you want to make your grandchildren wealthy, plant walnuts.
The rich, dark wood of black walnut trees and a worldwide market make veneer logs worth thousands of dollars each, and even lower-grade logs often are far more valuable than trees of most other species.
Traditionally, though, few landowners have been willing to invest money, labor and land in a harvest that usually does not come for 80 years.
Estel Mills of Michie, Tenn. – just a few miles across the Mississippi line from Alcorn County – is one of several hundred farmers across the country now planting walnuts in more than their dreams.
It was the plundering of America’s native walnut stands that caused log prices to rise 1,000 percent over the past 35 years.
Fortunately, that same plundering attracted the attention of Dr. Walter Beineke, a Purdue University researcher in Indiana.
With most crops, producers have used the best parent plants and animals to improve the genetics of each succeeding generation. Beineke noticed the opposite practice in black walnuts.
“For the past 200 years, we Americans have been practicing reverse genetic selection – harvesting the best black walnut trees and leaving the inferior trees to propagate,” he said.
Beineke began experimenting with hundreds of varieties of black walnut to see which ones would be healthiest, straightest and fastest-growing.
His findings became the basis of American Forestry Technology Inc., which now sells seedlings and graftings from nine patented black walnut cultivars -along with improved cherry and white oak, which are also valuable as veneer and furniture woods.
The advantages of the improved varieties are astounding. Whereas one black walnut in 10 usually reaches the most valuable grade – veneer quality – about two-thirds of the improved seedlings are expected to do so.
With grafted trees from the best parents, all should produce veneer logs except where outside factors (storms, poor site selection or poor care) damage them.
“The potential for one acre is a million dollars-plus (with such improvements in quality),” Mills said.
After learning about the growth potential of black walnut, he began planting for his family’s financial security and eventually became a technical representative for American Forestry Technology.
“I tell young folks, ‘Plant you an acre or two of these and quit worrying about your future,'” he said.
Early is better
An 80-year wait for a harvest might not have fazed Methuselah, but it’s a serious deterrent for those in a three-score-and-ten world.
With good site selection, improved genetics and meticulous care in the early years, Beineke now projects that growers could have marketable 20-inch-diameter logs at 25 to 35 years from planting.
People can reasonably expect walnuts they plant in their 30s – and even 40s – to support them in retirement.
“You really need to start with a good site selection,” said John Neighdigh of Bentonia, a walnut grower who is also an American Forestry Technology representative. “What you’re looking for is a rich, well-drained soil with a neutral pH.”
Less-than-ideal soils shouldn’t be ruled out.
“It’s just red dirt over here in Pontotoc,” said Darrell Clemons, who has 2.5 acres of genetically superior walnuts in partnership with his father, Howard. “The ones in the bottom are definitely in better shape than the ones up on the hill, though.”
Site preparation includes soil testing, subsoiling, liming in most cases and disking. Seedlings and graftings are planted in corrugated plastic sleeves, which protect the trees from herbicide, cold and deer.
The sleeves, acting as miniature greenhouses, are then tied to long steel stakes driven into the soil to stabilize against strong winds. Mulch adds protection against drought, since many people choose not to irrigate their trees.
“The trees really need mulch,” Neighdigh said. “That’s the main place people err” in planting.
Banking on the stump
Many people who plant walnut trees view their investment as both enjoyable and profitable.
“It’s kind of a hobby and an investment,” said Donnie Garrison, who is chief of campus police at Itawamba Community College. “Dad always said black walnuts would be worth money years from now.”
After he went to a 1997 field day featuring the improved Purdue trees at Mills’ farm, Garrison felt an urge to get started.
“At the time I really couldn’t afford the Purdue trees, so I put in about 150 common seedlings,” he said. He has since planted a half-acre of the genetically superior Purdue trees.
“My goal is to do half-acre increments,” he said. “Most people think that a half-acre isn’t much, but the work kind of piles up.”
The cost to begin isn’t chicken feed.
A one-acre package from American Forestry Technology costs $3,395 for 140 grafted trees and the shelters, while seedling packages cost about half that.
“When people can afford it, I recommend planting the grafts,” Mills said. Because seedlings are not as true to their parent variety, usually only two-thirds of them will yield veneer-grade logs (which is nevertheless a vast improvement over forest-run trees), and grafts have a year’s growth advantage.
Black walnuts are a good crop for homeowners with just an acre or two of land near their house, Neighdigh said. Proximity to a house makes for ease of irrigation and inspection and helps deter rustlers as the trees near maturity.
To Mills, a stand of walnut trees is “money on the stump.”
“People may not have much education, but they’re smart and they can grow things,” he said. “This is about financial security for families.”
WHERE TO CALL
For more information on genetically superior walnut trees, call John Neighdigh in Bentonia at (662) 755-2267 or Estel Mills in Michie, Tenn., at (901) 632-4712. On the Internet, go to www.hybridwalnut.com.