BEAUFORT — Mary Jenkins, a former janitor at East Central College, enjoys the freedom of working outside and being her own boss. At 82, she is one of thousands of freelance foragers relied on every October to harvest wild black walnuts, which, like her, are native to Missouri and tough to crack.
"You definitely learn to use your legs when you pick up, and that saves your back," said Jenkins, who weighs 94 pounds.
She'd already delivered a 420-pound load to Beaufort Ag Supply in the morning, which took her several days to gather. After processing, she cleared $33.60. Now, in the afternoon, she was back out along a roadside, picking up more from under a tree in Union that she'd been coming to for years.
Each walnut she dropped into a 5-gallon bucket brought Jenkins a fraction of a penny closer to helping her grandchildren and great-grandchildren feel loved this holiday season.
"It beats nothing," she said of the pay. "It will help with my Christmas gifts and everything."
Missouri is the largest producer of black walnuts, thanks to Jenkins and an army of others who are compelled to pick them up — in yards, fields, streets — and bring them to market to be processed. The wild walnuts are run through a machine that strips the outer green and black hull, about half the weight. The shell and inner nutmeat that remain pay 16 cents a pound west of the Mississippi River. That's half of what aluminum cans bring.
"It's a harvest of nature," said Jim Noble, 77, who runs a hulling station at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in Springfield, Missouri. "It's part of life. It's part of nature that people can participate in."
Each forager has a different story and seems to include Missouri's hardest workers. Some are families who have been picking up walnuts for years. Parents grew up doing it. Now their children do. Some are between jobs and need a little extra spending money. Some are retired and like being outdoors, moving.
Others are hard to pin down, like Shelly Keller, 60, who recently sold 121 pounds of hulled walnuts that took a few days to gather. She had the help of a busy bee who scurried around on a moped, filling a pillowcase with walnuts. The helper then shuttled the full pillowcase to Keller, who carried the main load in a 2006 Chevy van.
"Idle hands are for the devil," Keller said of their efforts. "I'd rather be working than doing nothing."
The payout was $20.
"Probably get a loaf of bread and some sausage, or something," she said. "Maybe some beer, who knows."
Many of them harvest the same circuit of trees every year, typically with permission from homeowners. Walnuts can make people stumble. Lawnmowers can send the nuts flying at the house.
Demand for black walnuts and their byproducts drives the harvest. The green hull, which turns black and fills with fly larvae the longer it sits on the ground, is used to treat intestinal parasites. The hard shell is ground up and used to polish soft metals and filter oil from water. The nuts are tossed into ice cream, baked goods and other culinary creations. Unlike the English walnut, which grows in California and originated in Persia, black walnut tastes earthy and robust.
"They suck," said Adam Hecht, manager of Beaufort Ag Supply, 60 miles southwest of St. Louis in Franklin County. He was under strict orders not to stain his hands black from the walnut harvest before recently getting married.
Tastes vary, of course.
Jenkins, who grew up on a farm, said her mother always baked her a black walnut birthday cake. Her aunt served them with cream. She hauls nearly all the walnuts she gathers to market, either in her husband's pickup or her 2000 Mercury Mystique, but she keeps a few for herself.
"I've got some picked out at the house," she said.
Foragers are working harder for fewer walnuts this harvest. Experts report that yields are down in Missouri. And of the trees that did bear significant fruit, they're dropping late from branches.
"We have been anxiously awaiting for the trees to release the nuts," said Brian Hammons, of Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri, the only black walnut buyer left of commercial significance in the Midwest.
Of those on the ground, green hulls are turning black by the minute. If they aren't picked up and flailed at the hulling stations, the nutmeats will rot.
"Squirrels are our biggest competitor," said Hammons, whose grandfather started the business in 1946. "They go out and get the best quality nuts before people can get to them, strangely enough."
As an incentive to pick them up quickly, the cash price is the highest in history — about $100 for a full pickup load, which can take one person anywhere from five hours to several days to fill.
Hammons has 220 hulling machines set up at delivery points across a 13-state region. Once the harvest is in, 80 full-time employees in Stockton will unload trucks, crack the nuts and process the meats and orders throughout the year.
In 2018, he bought 13 million pounds of walnuts, down from 31 million in 2017. He hopes to buy 24 million this year. That might be a struggle even with the higher price, said Stanley Dillon, 73, who hosts a weekly radio program about gardening on KTTR (97.7 FM) in Rolla, Missouri. He also runs a hulling station at Stanley's Garden Center in St. James.
In 1993, the year of the Great Flood, Dillon said he bought 350,000 pounds of hulled walnuts for Hammons. This time, he has a stack of maybe 5,500 pounds.
"It's a very light harvest this year, probably the lightest I've seen in 20 years," he said.
He attributes it to wet weather when the trees were blooming.
"Like everything else, they bloom and have to be pollinated," he said. "If the pollen doesn't get from flower to flower, then, there you go."
There are still walnuts to pick up off the ground. Those who do the work know how to stretch a dollar — or don't seem to care.
A white Ford Ranger pickup rolled into Beaufort Ag Supply, sagging in the back from a heavy of load.
"I bought my truck on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing — 1994," said Charlie Toben, the man behind the wheel. "Now this year was the 50th anniversary. So my truck is 25 years old."
His wife encourages him to upgrade, but the Ranger will do just fine. Two large, handmade signs hang in the rear window that read: "Trump sells fear" and "Don't buy it!"
"I get a lot more thumbs-ups than I get middle fingers," said Toben, 68, a retired bookkeeper who lives near Krakow.
He's in his sixth walnut season. Tall and wiry, he reaches down and grabs each one by hand and drops it in a bucket. He doesn't use a tool that looks like a wire bingo basket on a stick. The devices work well but cost $60, the equivalent of 325 pounds of walnuts.
"Once my legs get used to it, I think I can do it faster," Toben said of the old-fashioned way. "I guess it's what I am used to."
After being run through "Old Rattler," the hulling machine, this trip to market cleared 577 pounds of walnuts, or $92.32. It was his third load. Maybe he had two more in him.
He donates the payout to a multiple sclerosis charity.
As with anything in agriculture, equipment and fuel costs eat into earnings fast.
"That's all of them right there," said Ron Poole, 72, as he dropped a tub of walnuts into the hopper to be hulled. "I don't know what they pay for them. It's my first time."
The Boeing retiree has three walnut trees at his new house in Cedar Hill. He didn't want the nuts to go to waste. He gathered them over the past month or so, then drove them 45 miles to market. His payout was $5.60.
Joe Lenau, 60, of Union, has it figured out. By his estimate, he's gathered 100,000 pounds of walnuts over the past decade. In the best year, he grossed $3,000.
"It takes a little investment," he said. "You can make minimum wage, if you want to."
He uses roller baskets to pick up the walnuts. To cut down on transportation costs, he forages along the route to his regular job unloading coal trains at Ameren's power plant in Labadie. He looks for walnuts before and after work, sometimes by moonlight.
He has permission from landlords to get walnuts from about 300 trees. He's always on the lookout for more. He said a man in Union recently told him to back away from a scattering of walnuts that fell in the street. Leave them for the squirrels.
"I said something I shouldn't have and took off," Lenau said.
"They weren't that great anyway," said his wife, Carol.
She steadied multiple 55-gallon barrels full of walnuts from the bed of a 2019 Chevrolet pickup into the hopper of the hulling machine. Before their children were grown, they'd helped, too.
"We always gave them some of the money, so they liked it," Carol Lenau said. "You've got to keep them interested."
Their load, one of several this year, was 767 pounds. They kept about 150 pounds for themselves to crack this winter.
"I usually put them in brownies," she said.
Joe Lenau, one of the biggest harvesters in the region, admitted that even he couldn't keep up with Mark Jasper, who brings in about 20,000 pounds of hulled walnuts a year.
Jasper, 62, of Leslie, said it all started when his son Joe was 5 and picked up walnuts for the first time with his grandfather. After they took the tiny harvest to market, the boy vowed to buy property with the earnings.
The boy kept at it. Instead of property, though, his goal turned into a college fund. His mother, father and siblings pitched in to help until it became a family tradition.
Mark, his father, whose regular job is shop manager at Hillermann Nursery & Florist in Washington, Missouri, has a knack for developing systems. He designed and built custom equipment to improve efficiencies in the field and delivery, such as a dump truck bed that can easily pour a 5,000-pound load of wild walnuts into the hulling machine.
Now Joe is 19. He's getting prerequisites out of the way at East Central College in Union. He plans to complete a double major in mechanical engineering and engineering management at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
"It ain't going to pay for everything, but it helps get rid of some of the sting," Mark said of his son's nest egg.
It never was all about the money, anyway.
Late in the day recently in Washington, at one of 70 walnut groves the Jaspers visit every fall, Mark, wife Mardie, daughter Emily, son Joe and Joe's girlfriend, Erin Lindberg, worked together with the goal to fill one pickup bed by sundown.
"You see so many people that are well off, but the family unit is not very happy," said Mark, nodding to the team behind him. "At the end of the day, I feel like the richest person in the world because I've got this."
They finished the load in an hour.