May tornado puts new twist on Stockton's walnut business

Monday, September 29, 2003

STOCKTON, Mo. -- Brian Hammons has been eyeing black walnut trees across southwest Missouri from the cab of his pickup.

Hammons, president and chief executive of the country's only commercial processor of black walnuts, likes what he sees. If his gut is right, a bumper crop of some 30 million pounds of nuts will be collected by thousands of people in Missouri and 15 east-central states from lawns, pastures and fields.

The nuts will be distributed under the Hammons Products Company label at supermarkets across the country for use in cookies, cakes, pies and other dishes. A variety of companies also will purchase them for black walnut ice cream.

Only four months ago, Hammons wasn't so optimistic about his company's ability to handle this year's crop.

A tornado ripped through Stockton on May 4, damaging 40 of 120 businesses and more than 200 homes. Hammons Products Company, which averages about $11 million in annual sales, had an estimated $2.5 million in losses to its plant and inventory.

It lost eight storage buildings -- leaving hundreds of bags that contained some eight million pounds of nuts torn and exposed.

"It would have rained black walnuts for miles if it had taken the bags, too," Hammons said.

Hammons was at a Chicago food show when his wife called to tell him a tornado had devastated the quaint town of about 1,800 residents. He doubted it was as bad as his wife had warned, but he immediately drove back to Stockton.

"I had a big lump in my throat and shed a few tears as I looked around," Hammons said, recalling his arrival in the town off Highway 32. "I grew up here. I can't even tell you what it was like."

The devastation was so great that the federal government extended a rare offer to assist with long-term recovery. Federal Emergency Management Agency assembled a team of architects, engineers and community planners to create a comprehensive plan to rebuild businesses and homes. It also hired a recovery manager -- to be paid by FEMA for one year -- to assist city leaders in pursuing grant money to pay for projects.

Hammons knew he had some tough decisions to make about the business his family had started in 1946. The company's 87 employees still had another eight weeks of work to finish processing the 2002 crop. They needed to clean and repair machines in anticipation of the new harvest that would begin arriving in October.

Hammons could replace what was lost and quickly return to business as usual, or he could implement modernization plans that had been part of the company's long-range plan.

"We had wanted to make some changes," Hammons said. "An opportunity was presented to us, so we took it."

Suppliers were sympathetic to Hammons' situation and delivered new equipment within weeks.

Today, one can look in any direction from Hammons Products and see damaged trees, debris and houses without roofs.

The company's skyline, however, is broken by two new 80-foot-tall steel storage bins. They are similar to grain silos, but they will be used to protect and dry nine million pounds of black walnuts.

"That's a lot of nuts," Hammons said.

Hammons has been contemplating ways to make the structures that glisten in the autumn sun more attractive.

"We might paint 'Black Walnut Capital of the World' on them," he said with contemplation. "Or maybe we could do a tree with a squirrel crawling up the side."

The new system allows hullers to dump nuts at the storage bins. Large scales weigh the nuts, speeding up the time hullers spend at the plant.

Jerry Letterman, who owns Letterman Feed in Conway, eagerly anticipated October. He operates one of the approximately 250 hulling stations for Hammons Products as supplemental income. He expected to collect about 340,000 pounds of black walnuts from Oct. 1 through Nov. 10.

Letterman, who hopes to earn at least $6,000 for his work, said he never questioned whether Hammons would be ready for the harvest.

"They're a very strong family business, and they've got good people working for them," Letterman said.

Changes were made inside the plant, as well. An integrated computerized system was installed to pluck nutmeat and remove shell pieces from the cracked nuts. Trained inspectors still give the nuts the once-over to ensure quality before they are packaged and sold.

Nothing goes to waste. Hammons Products is also the world's leading supplier of black walnut soft grit abrasives. The ground shell is sold for a variety of industrial uses, such as cleaning abrasives, soaps, cosmetics and oil-well drilling.

Noble Hudson, who operates a hulling station for Hammons Products in Lebanon, said black walnuts are nature's money makers. He owns Noble Hudson and Sons feed store but operates a hulling station in his southwest Missouri town 30 days each year.

He processed about 300,000 pounds of black walnuts last year and hoped to double it this year. People will arrive at the hulling station with nuts in buckets, bags and trash cans, Hudson said. They earn $10 per 100 pounds of hulled nuts for their effort.

"It's a good cash crop," Hudson said. "You can pickup nuts one day, take them to be hulled the next day -- and we'll give you money."

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