By Steve Boehme
Have you ever considered growing walnut trees as an investment? If so, you have lots of company. We often see groves of young walnut trees growing in yards, apparently planted with the idea of selling their valuable wood at some future date. Over the years we’ve been asked for advice on this topic many times. Our short answer is to quote Alexander Pope: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast…”
For many years we had the pleasure of having a friend and neighbor, the late Bob Nelson, who planted 100 walnut trees on his farm each year for over 17 years. Bob was an investment advisor and a very methodical, careful man. His research and experimentation into growing walnut trees for fun and profit gained him national recognition, and his walnut plantation (over 1700 trees in all) still stands today. We thank him for the information you’re about to read.
First, realize that it takes many decades to grow a saleable walnut log. Walnut isn’t all that much more valuable than many other kinds of wood, unless it’s “veneer quality”. Veneer is made by peeling a log, which requires a perfectly straight “saw log” at least nine feet long and 18 inches in diameter, with a minimum of knots. It takes over 50 years to grow a veneer quality walnut log under ideal conditions. To know the future value of the log, you need a crystal ball. You also need to subtract the entire cost of the project, to know whether your investment was in fact profitable.
We would venture to guess that only one out of a hundred mature walnut trees would be veneer quality. There are many steps between planting a walnut seed and harvesting marketable timber. Each of these steps costs money, time or both. Our friend Bob wrote a very interesting “white paper” about his experiment. He compared the future value of an investment in walnut tree growing to investing the same amount at compound interest. To quote from his report: “It would be an act of futility to invest money” in a walnut grove. Still, the idea of planting such a legacy is appealing. Most of your investment would be time and effort, not dollars. Here is a summary of the steps from start to finish:
1. Lay out a planting area, allowing space for straight rows of trees spaced 15 feet apart, and treat a four-foot circle for each tree with Roundup. Select walnuts from the straightest, healthiest walnut tree you can find, and remove the husks. Put the seeds in a feed sack and bury them for a month or so, then dig them up and wash them in a bucketful of water. Throw out any that float.
2. Plant three seeds at each tree location, in separate holes. If more than one seed comes up in any location, pick the straightest, healthiest sapling and cut off the rest, painting Roundup concentrate on the cut stumps.
3. Mow the grove twice a year. Protect the young saplings from deer.
4. After 3 or 4 years, start pruning the trees to encourage a straight trunk. Crooked or forked trees are worthless. Once the trees reach 8 feet tall, start “limbing up” the trunk each year. Repeat this every year for as long as possible; ideally the mature tree will be clear of limbs at least 16 feet up.
5. Once the oldest trees reach harvestable size (ideally at least 18” diameter at breast height), call your state forester for help in estimating their value and marketing them. He can recommend a forestry consultant to help you with the sale. The market value of walnut logs fluctuates from year to year; you want to sell in an “up” cycle, and you want to find qualified buyers.
By now you’ve probably done the math and figured out that you’ll no longer be alive by the time your walnut grove reaches saleable size. Our friend Bob knew that his children and grandchildren had far less interest in maintaining his trees than he did, so he sold his walnut plantation while he was still alive and invested the proceeds.
Once upon a time when we owned a retail nursery, a customer rolled down the window of her Mercedes and asked us to explain to her how to grow a walnut tree. Her plan was to nurture this single tree until her children were college age, then sell it to pay for their college. We chuckled to ourselves and referred her to the Walnut Council, a national organization that serves as a resource for “best practices”. You can find them online at www.walnutcouncil.org.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.