Asheville Nuttery, a food coop initiative in North Carolina, provides a place for community members to trade in foraged nuts for profit or a share of processed nuts, oil, or flour.
Imagine if the trees lining your neighborhood streets provided delicious food, free for the taking. Now, consider if that food was versatile to use and rich in unsaturated fats, fiber, and minerals. Lastly, think if that food required minimal human input, fertilizers, or pesticides to grow, and it created wildlife habitat, reduced erosion, and sequestered carbon.
If you live in temperate North America, that food is likely already available in the form of native acorns and other nuts. In fact, there’s a bounty growing all around us in the form of native North American nut trees, largely untapped by humans. But if you’ve ever processed nuts — cracking, dehulling, leaching, and grinding — you know it’s an arduous process that can deter many from taking advantage of this free food source. That’s why Asheville Nuttery, an innovative nut foragers collective in Asheville, North Carolina — where I live — is removing the obstacles that keep us from incorporating local nuts into our diets.
A Nut-Processing Food Coop Initiative
If there’s a pun with “nuts” in it, it’s been heard at Asheville Nuttery. But they don’t just crack jokes there. The cooperatively owned nut depot is a pioneering facility for processing local, collectively foraged wild nuts.
Historically, nuts were a staple food for Native Americans and in many parts of Europe and Asia. Some of today’s oak and pecan groves date back to when people regularly harvested from those trees for their sustenance. In the past two centuries, however, annual grains have dominated our diets and made nut-based foods a rare curiosity.
Given the scarcity of harvest, there’s enormous potential for an economic and culinary revival around nuts. Their rich and complex flavors make them a real delicacy, and they’re among our most nutritious foods. Plus, they store well, and they’re versatile to cook with. Nut flours can be a gluten-free substitute for wheat flour in many recipes.
In 2014, a group of agroforestry enthusiasts in Asheville came together to create a model for growing and processing native nuts that would be both ecologically and economically viable. They met through the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club, a volunteer group focused on planting and caring for fruit and nut trees in parks and other public places in Asheville. They developed a vision for growing and processing nuts on a large scale, first identifying two limiting factors: land costs, and the 10 to 15 years it takes for nut trees to bear a crop.
Planting food in public places pointed the way around the first obstacle. “We were planting fruit and nut trees in public parks,” says Justin Holt, one of the group of five. “And I started to get my head around the idea of trees as a kind of commonwealth — how we can serve so much more than just ourselves if we think outside the box of only our own yards.” It was a simple insight: You don’t need to own land to plant on it.
The five friends organized into a group called Nutty Buddy Collective and began reaching out to local conservation-minded landowners with underutilized land. Currently, they negotiate 99-year lease agreements with these landowners that allow them to plant and maintain nut orchards and harvest crops from their properties. For compensation, the landowners receive a percentage of the harvests. The Nutty Buddies started their first orchard by planting black walnut trees in 2014. Their plantings have now expanded to include hickory, chestnut, hazelnut, pawpaw, Aronia, elderberry, apple, and pear.
While waiting for their orchards to mature, the Nutty Buddies foraged from existing trees in the region. They also developed equipment necessary for processing their harvests. This led to the creation of Asheville Nuttery.
Since 2019, Nutty Buddy Collective and Asheville Nuttery have been two independent but interrelated enterprises. A third entity, Acornucopia Project, is developing and marketing new food products based on the nuts harvested and processed, such as oils, nut flours, and crackers. Acornucopia Project also holds a broader vision for a cooperative network of community nut mills, like Asheville Nuttery, that spans the region and beyond.
Located at a former greenhouse complex outside of west Asheville, Asheville Nuttery reflects the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude of its team members, all of whom have day jobs. On any given day in fall, you can find them sorting and weighing nuts, packing them in mesh bags, and greeting people who drop off their foraged harvests.
The idea for the nuttery was sparked, in part, by community oil presses in Southern Europe. People bring olives from their trees to be pressed, and they leave with olive oil. Similarly, Asheville Nuttery is a place where anyone can join as a forager and bring wild nuts to be processed. Foragers can trade what they pick either for cash or for a forager’s share of the processed nuts, oils, or flour at the end of the season.
Accessible, small-scale nut-processing equipment is hard to find, so the team is also developing its own innovative processing equipment. I witnessed in action a dehuller for black walnuts made out of a former lime spreader attached to a tractor.
Witnessing a Transformation
Two years ago, I became an Asheville Nuttery forager. I took a nut-tree-identification class, and I got my buckets and sacks ready. Then, I began to look at my neighborhood a little differently.
There are plenty of massive, old nut trees where I live. They grow in people’s backyards, line the streets, and provide shade in parks, school playgrounds, and cemeteries. Most of the time, people don’t think of them as producing an edible crop, which shows how far removed we are from incorporating local nuts into our diets. When these trees drop thousands of pounds of acorns, black walnuts, hickories, and chestnuts onto streets and sidewalks, the squirrels are thrilled, but homeowners and car drivers tend to be annoyed. Gathering black walnuts or prickly chestnuts in public parks, I’ve more than once heard, “You mean those are edible?”
The most transformative part about becoming a forager is that you’ll start to notice more. You’ll probably start putting together a mental map of nut trees in your neighborhood. You’ll pay attention to leaf shapes and telltale stains on the sidewalk, and you might plan outings around the locations of particularly promising trees. You may work up the courage to talk to a neighbor you’ve never met to ask if you can collect acorns from their oak tree. Before you know it, you’ll see your community as a landscape of edible crops, and it’ll feel more like a village now that you’ve connected with former strangers.
A Good Adventure Finding Foraged Nuts
On Saturdays in late fall, foragers haul bucket after bucket to the nuttery for processing. Each drop-off feels a little festive. We’re contributing to a collective project of shifting more calories to the local area, and shifting our mindsets toward a more cooperative, perennial-based food system.
This past December, after the foraging season ended, I received my share: 18 pounds of dehulled and cracked black walnuts. We foragers gathered for an end-of-season celebration, where we sampled innovative nut-based delicacies, including acorn flour crackers, hickory and black walnut oils, nut “cheeses,” nut-based pesto, acorn “olives,” and acorn-based chocolate desserts. And that, of course, is why we’re doing this: We’re rediscovering forgotten flavors and inventing new ones, and both make for a good adventure.
Interview with Justin Holt of Asheville Nuttery
Mari: One of the challenges to the wider adoption of locally grown nut-based foods is the lack of cultural knowledge around harvesting, processing, and cooking with nuts and acorns. How do you address that challenge?
Justin: Working to align our cultural values and practices with trees and perennial agriculture is more important to me than planting trees. Sure, it’s important to be out there planting the trees and developing the infrastructure, but what matters to me most is engaging our community about this. That’s what has made it feasible for us to do what we do now. We are able to access land because we’ve negotiated leases with landowners, and we get such a large supply of nuts because we’ve involved the community in foraging nuts. Community engagement is in the DNA of our project.
Mari: In many ways, you have to change people’s perceptions of what counts as food.
Justin: Yes. When we go to events, there’s often a handful of people who seem mildly interested in, say, acorn flour, and they say, “Oh, I didn’t know you could eat that.” And then they move on. But maybe they go home and tell a friend about it, or maybe they come back next year and actually taste the product. Slowly, people become more curious. The flavors are strong, and some people get excited about the novelty factor. They just have to wrap their head around how they might want to use the product in cooking.
One of the new edges we’re trying to work is partnering with chefs at local restaurants. Chefs are very influential in what people will consider as cool and exciting. If a food item shows up on the menu of a fancy restaurant, and they’re featuring it, and they’re excited about it, that raises awareness. Recently, we had a fundraiser dinner, and chefs at OWL Bakery, Plant, and West Village Bakery all contributed. Seeing nut-based and acorn-based foods being adopted by restaurants also raises awareness about our foraging efforts and brings in more people who want to participate.
Mari: What are some of the main challenges you’re encountering?
Justin: The main challenge we’re facing at the moment is that we don’t have efficient-enough processes to break even on the labor costs. As a result, we haven’t been paying ourselves, but instead have treated it like an experimental project where the main yield is learning.
Marketing is also a challenge. We believe there’s actually a massive demand for nut-based products out there. So many people are looking for alternatives to meat and gluten in their diets, and nut- and acorn-based foods can provide both. The challenge is figuring out how to get the products in front of the right people and understand their value.
Mari: A part of your larger vision is to inspire nut depots like yours to spring up everywhere. Tell me more about what you’d like to see happening.
Justin: We’re giving presentations at various events and farming conferences and essentially laying out our model, hoping some people will adopt it and decide to cooperate rather than compete with us. Some amount of competition is good; it creates a buzz. I’d love to see someone else start selling acorn oil and raise awareness about it! But the possibility of cooperation is really strong too. One of the issues with nut trees is they don’t produce consistently each year. If we had a network of nut depots in different regions, we could be co-organizing to harvest in whichever locale the mast year is and trade nuts between regions to fill in the gaps in supply from year to year.
Mari: What would you say to readers who live in another part of the country, or the world, and get excited about your vision and model?
Justin: I would invite them to check out our website, Asheville Nuttery, and our online store, Acornucopia Project. I do want to stress that making this model workable and viable is an ongoing process. I wouldn’t want people to jump into a project like this thinking it was going to be a breeze. The process of learning about nut processing and developing equipment is hard; the product profits are marginal. We’ve realized the hard way that we would need a higher level of investment in infrastructure, machinery, and processing space to make our model truly viable. Alternatively, we’re considering pooling more investment from the cooperative members and making our system work outside the money economy.
At the moment, we have identified a partner organization that’s enthusiastic about helping us to receive grant funding so we could properly plan how we want to grow, and then execute a plan to scale. So we see pathways to tackle the challenges that still remain, and hopefully, we can build on the enormous amount of learning we’ve already gained. But it’s important to stress that this is a passion project, and that kind of passion and determination is probably nonnegotiable in any initiative of this sort.
Mari Jyväsjärvi Stuart is a regenerative designer, writer, and urban homesteader living in Asheville, North Carolina. She writes about gardening, foraging, and traditional skills at Make Gather Grow and on Instagram.