This resource consists of five pages that are excerpted from a 45-page document entitled Marketing Special Forest Products in New York State: A practical manual for forest-based enterprises. The manual was prepared by CCE Educator Jim Ochterski and colleagues, and published in 2005 by Cornell Cooperative Extension. The full document is available at the Marketing Specialty Forest Crops site.
The Guide begins with an overview of the marketing potential of a variety of fruit and nuts varieties. It goes on to illustrate types of harvesting, processing, packaging and storage that may be required in preparing products for market. Finally it suggests strategies for giving your products market appeal, and for pricing and distributing them.
Whether for a plant-based diet, set out to attract wildlife, or as an important part of old-fashioned recipes, nuts and forest berries have immense potential for marketing and income. Anyone growing these edible plants, or lucky enough to have a number of nut and berry trees and shrubs already on their property, will likely sell out of their seasonal harvest every year for years to come. It is hard to overestimate the demand, once consumers get a little education provided by you as a forest crop entrepreneur.
Nuts include shagbark hickory, shell bark hickory, and pignut hickory (for wildlife only), black walnut, chestnuts, acorns, hazelnuts, and beechnuts. Most of these nuts grow naturally in New York’s forests; others are grown in nut orchards as cultivated varieties.
The Northern Nut Growers Association is the most helpful organization in New York for information about nut growing.
Nuts are a high energy food for wildlife and humans. Natural oils make nuts appealing to people who are looking for healthy, nutritionally sound, and unusually tasty ingredients. With some harvest care, good storage practices, and a small amount of marketing effort, these nuts will provide enjoyment for you and your customers.
Forest-based berry crops, like blackberries, serviceberries, lignonberries, elderberries, blueberries, and wild plums are not consistently regarded by agriculture researchers as important crops (Finn, 1999). However, forest owners and farmers can diversify or supplement income by cultivating and marketing the unique character of these berries – taste, health benefits, and local identity.
Nut harvesting and storage will make or break the marketability of your product. It takes good timing and a bit of effort to transform the nuts dropping from a tree into a marketable product. Hickory nuts should be removed from their pod and sold either in the shell or shelled. The husk usually breaks away from the shell cleanly, leaving a marble-sized nut. This nut then needs to be cracked open to pick out the edible nutmeat. Place husked hickory nuts in a pail of water to sort off the ones that float – these do not have filled kernels due to weevils or poor growing conditions. A sharp rap with a hammer on the curved shoulder of the nut will break the shell without ruining the edible nutmeat parts. Be aware that it takes a lot of effort to extract a marketable amount of hickory nutmeats. If you market hickory nuts, provide cracking instructions or invest in bench top devices that are designed for repeated nut cracking. Black walnuts can be sold unprocessed, in the shell, or in edible form. If intended for consumption, walnuts should be husked immediately after harvest. The husk will stain your skin, so wear protective gloves to de-husk the fresh walnut. For large quantities, use a heel board or walnut husker. Rinse the walnut in its shell, then use the float test to remove undesirable walnuts. After sorting, dry the walnuts in the shell for a month by placing them in layers with good air circulation, protected from rodents and direct light (Janssen, 1994; Roper, 2003). To crack open a walnut, set it on a brick or stone and strike it on the end with a hammer. Nipper-type wire cutters will make extraction of the walnut meat easier than picking it out. Soaking the shelled walnuts in water for 1 –2 hours, draining, and sealing in a container for 10 hours can help make the shelling easier.
Beechnuts and hazelnuts are smaller,and are often sold in the shell. However,both have nutmeats that readily fall from the shell with a light cracking. Acorns are edible, and make an interesting snack or wildlife offering. Harvest and collect acorns (in competition with local squirrels) when they are fully sized and begin dropping from the tree. White oak acorns are often low in tannin content and can be shelled and eaten raw or roasted. Acorns from red oak trees must have the tannin leached out to eliminate the bitter taste. Collect and shell red oak acorns, and boil them in plenty of water, then drain and refresh the boiling water repeatedly until the water no longer turns brown. Then, the acorns can be roasted, candied, dried and crushed, or ground into a high-fat flour (Peterson, 1977). Nuts are best stored in a very cold or frozen state. Due to their high oil content and desirability by insects and rodents, infestations are common. In a freezer, the nuts stay fresh for a year or more. They need to be packaged in small quantities in airtight containers to prevent odor and flavor contamination from other foods. Make sure your buyers are aware of the need for proper nut storage.
Most forest-grown nuts can be roasted to improve the flavor. Spread the nuts on a tray and roast them at 250 degrees F until they are dry without becoming brown. Roasted nuts can be canned or frozen, following USDA guidelines. All forest berries are highly perishable. They must be refrigerated immediately upon cleaning, then kept under high humidity. If being sold fresh, they should be kept as cool as possible. Forest berries of all types can be dried or processed into jam, jellies, syrup, pie filling, or steeped as teas.
There is an endless variety of ways you can package forest-grown nuts and berries. Due to the unique nature of the these food products and the fact that few people are familiar with them, it is especially important to use clear glass or plastic containers or bags. Your customers will want to see the product right through the packaging, so they are not surprised when they open it. Here are some packaging ideas:
The key to marketing forest-derived nuts and berries is consistent quality. Chefs, small scale food processors, and retail customers will expect that your produce will be offered in a relatively consistent, unblemished form every time. This aspect of marketing has already been a challenge to some farm operators who have arranged direct delivery to local restaurants. Restaurateurs and retail customers will not accept a few off-flavor berries or undersized nuts in a batch. They will find another source or substitute that offers consistency, despite not being a local source.
Obviously, nuts and berries are seasonal, and that is an intrinsic understanding in the locally produced food marketplace. Preservation methods such as freezing or drying change the nature of the product. Find out if your customer would accept a stored, and somewhat altered, version of your nuts or berries during the off-season by asking for their preferences. Person-to-person communication and product education help make special forest product marketing unique. One of the key marketing phrases in agroforestry is, “I will try to meet your needs.” Pricing forest-derived nuts and berries is highly variable. Nuts are sold by the pound (higher for shelled, lower for unshelled) and berries are often sold by volume - in half-pints, pints and quarts. If you are distributing a variety of such food products, be ready to convert one unit to another easily (e.g. 8 oz. of acorns = 1/2 pint). White oak acorns - $5-7/lb. unshelled; $10-15/lb. shelled Hickory nuts - $3-5/lb. unshelled; $15- 30/lb. shelled Hazelnuts - $3-5/lb. unshelled; $8-10/lb. shelled Walnuts - $2-4/lb. unshelled; $6-10/lb. shelled