Acornucopia is sprouting under a tree near you.
“I am partial to the peculiar and wholesome sweetness of a nut, and I think that it is profitable sport every autumn in gathering them” — Henry David Thoreau “Wild Fruits”
We have all heard the Bill of Particulars against agriculture. Pesticides, fertilizers, and animal manure and contaminating our precious water supply, just when we are really starting to need it. Chemical fertilizers are also nitrifying soils (destroying soil biology), eutrophying rivers (suffocating the fish) and depleting essential but non-renewable resources, such as potassium.
All agricultural land used to be something else. It used to be a forest or a prairie grassland or a steppe or a wetland. In some cases, the change of land use happened centuries ago and a new ecosystem has been established around it. But in every case, there is a net loss of biodiversity.
In the USA, over 53 million acres of prairie grasslands are being converted to farmland each year. Brazil lost rainforest the size of Spain to food production between the 1960s and 2005. It cleared more than 1 million hectares of forest in 2018 and the announced policies of President Jair Bolsonaro could make that far worse in 2019.
After tripling between 1980 and 1990, global wheat yields stagnated, surpassed by even greater gains in the global temperature records. A 2°C rise (the Paris goal) will cut maize yields by 18%. The 4 degrees now predicted for this century will cut maize yield in half. Same for sorghum, wheat, soy — virtually all cereal staples.
In his latest peon to collective ineptitude, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Bill McKibben observes that climate change could affect food delivery systems even before it affects supply.
...[T]he transportation system that distributes it runs through just 14 major chokepoints and all those are vulnerable to, you guessed it, massive disruption from climate change.
McKibben gives the example of the Mississippi, which barges one-third of the world’s maize and soy to market. It has already been shut down to commercial traffic by extreme heat, causing river levels to plummet, or by flooding in the enormous catchment that makes it too dangerous.
Rising CO2 levels, by speeding plant growth, reduce the nutrition in our staple grain crops, meaning that even when there is enough supply, our food may not provide enough food value to sustain us.
Falter | Bill McKibben | Macmillan
g Hardcover $28.00 Henry Holt and Co. Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 9781250178268 304 Pages Thirty years ago Bill McKibben…
All that was why it was so refreshing to discover the Acornucopia booth at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina this past Saturday. I was just walking down the aisle in one of the exhibitor halls when I noticed some guy, whose name turned out to be Justin Holt, sitting there cracking nuts and sorting meat from the shell. Next to him were paper-bagged assortments of flours and bottles of colorful oils — red and white acorn, black walnut, bitternut hickory, chestnut, and avocado.
Since launching its first season of production at the Nuttery at Smith Mill Works in West Asheville in 2017, Acornucopia has processed thousands of pounds of native black walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts, and acorns into flour, oil, nut milk and nut meats. The project relies on community members throughout the region to collect fresh nuts and deliver them in trade for money or processed nuts. Their traveling nut carnival, Circus Quercus, recruits and trains their independent workforce.
These hardworking entrepreneurs, who all have day jobs, are pushing out the boundaries of what we think of as food and, at the same time, redesigning the future of agriculture. We tend to think of agroforestry only in the tropics, where for centuries trees have provided the fruit, nut and vegetable crops we are most familiar with. Protein, on the other hand, is a challenge, in the tropics no less than temperate climates, and native peoples tended to rely on harvesting fish and game that had converted fruits and nuts into the more complex amino acids our bodies crave.
The fact that there are over 500 species of oak around the world is a great comfort. What is disturbing is that 85 of those species are endangered. Oaks are generalists meaning they are adaptive and survivors. When we start losing generalists to “progress” it might be time to scrutinize the definition of “progress.” — Acornucopia
COMMUNITY HARVEST: Donna Kelly, left, drops off a load of black walnuts with Acornucopia Project volunteer Greg Mosser at the organization’s facility in West Asheville. Community members can bring wild, edible nuts they harvest from their property to the Nuttery to be processed into oil, flour, and other products. Photo by Justin Holt, Acornucopia, from Mountain Express.
Sure, the native peoples of Turtle Island made acorn flour by boiling out the tannins and continuously rinsing, but it was maize, venison and wild turkeys that built their civilization. At his wood-fired restaurant, Tabula Rasa, chef Aaron Grigsby has been using nixtamalization, traditionally used to turn indigestible corn into first-stage masa, to also treat protein-rich but bitter wild nuts. Using a highly alkaline solution of wood ash he makes the nuts tender and digestible without a time-consuming tannin leach.
Another Asheville chef, Mark Rosenstein, uses native walnuts in everything from pesto and salad garnish to braised pork belly and granola. Lately, he’s combining black walnut with citrus to make infused liqueurs. Jessie Dean, the owner of Asheville Tea Co., uses Acornucopia hickory nuts to make hickory milk chai and golden hickory milk. The flavor, Dean says, is a bit lighter than that of a chai made with dairy milk, “hinted with maple, vanilla, fall forest and pecan flavors.”
Recipe adapted by Cathy Cleary from instructions provided by Jessie Dean and Bill Whipple.
Combine 1 cup cracked hickory nuts (shells and all) with 3 cups of water in a saucepan and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. The nut pulp will float to the top. Allow mixture to cool. Skim off the nut meats and reserve for another use. Strain milk through cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer and put back into the saucepan or into jars for later use. The milk will be light and brothlike.
Asheville Tea Co.’s Hickory Milk Chai:
2 cups hickory milk
2 tablespoons mixed sweet spices (such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and clove)
2 tablespoons strong black tea leaves (such as assam)
Bring hickory milk to a simmer. Add spice mixture and simmer for three to four minutes. Remove from heat and add black tea leaves. Steep for three to four minutes. Strain and serve. Garnish with a cinnamon stick, a dusting of nutmeg or star anise, if desired.
“Chai does not have to include the above spices; you could create your own unique infusion using fennel, coriander and local ginger from one of our great tailgate markets. You could also sweeten this tea to taste, ideally with local honey or maple syrup. I did not add sweetener or additional milk to this tea and found it to be very satisfying: creamy mouthfeel, inherently sweet, slightly brothy and full of flavor notes like almond, vanilla, maple, pecan, honey and a nice, spicy finish and low astringency. But a spoonful of honey or syrup would also go down nicely.” — Jessie Dean, Asheville Tea Co.
Liat Batshira, the owner of Micro Miso, used chestnuts to make a special batch of miso, a paste traditionally made with fermented soybeans aged for 2 years. “I was surprised and amazed that a year after I’d made it, the flavor profile had transformed into a sweet maple syrup flavor,” she says. “The last batch of chestnut miso I made, I used very different ratios of ingredients and time, and while I think it tastes good, the chestnut flavor is subtle.”
When we speak of food forests in permaculture, we always talk about how much more resilient they are to predations by marauding armies or resilient in the face of creeping climate destruction. We need to also begin to see them as a strategy to reverse climate change, not just a fast exit from destructive grain farming, but growing more forests as carbon sponges. We should be adding forest to the planet at the rate of an area the size of 5 Spains every year. If we could do that, and also switch off fossil fuels, we would extract enough legacy carbon to get the atmosphere back in balance with natural cycles in about half a century. We could resume the Holocene.
As I told the audience at Mother Earth, we can’t just go from “Oh, we don’t know climate change is real” to “Heck, it is too late, we’re screwed.” There has to be a middle ground.
Bill Whipple, a co-founder of Acornucopia with Holt, says:
With a national deficit of over 20 trillion dollars, the American dollar is backed only by debt. So my financial advice to you is unload your dollars as soon as you can because who knows when someone, some day, may come collecting….
Let us shift from a culture that is half nuts to one that has gone completely Nuts! Let’s work together with nature by starting to harness the regenerative resources of our native nut trees in our back yards, commons and woods. After proving the economic viability and social relevance of native nuts, public demand will incentivize landowners to augment their agricultural fields with low maintenance native species orchards and enhance the productivity of their grasslands. This will create biodiversity, sequester water, remineralize soils and subsequently our food.
And, each tree will pull one ton of carbon out of the air during its lifetime.
Acornucopia also provides a community milling service for black walnuts where the project will dehull, wash, cure, crack and sift walnuts for a miller’s cut of 40% of the dehulled, in-shell weight. Foragers receive 60% weight in cracked, sifted, large, unsorted walnut meat and shell.
Whipple says the economic model of Acornucopia aspires to reflect the trees that support it — generous, regenerative, and self-replicating:
“The largest taxi company in the world doesn’t own one vehicle, nor does the largest hotel chain own a single hotel. What if the world’s largest global agricultural conglomerate was a worker-owned, non-heirarchical cooperative, and didn’t need to own a single acre of land or even a plant? Why nut?”
Before Europeans, Oak/ Hickory forests were the predominant forests of the Midwest. The Acornucopia horizon includes oak orchards as far as the eye can see in every direction. Someday, when we come back to our senses, the Midwest will be referred to as “America’s Acorn Belt”
Justin Holt’s Acornucopia Brownies
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup hickory nut oil or other vegetable oil
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup acorn flour
Handful of chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix butter, oil, cocoa, eggs, vanilla and salt. Add acorn flour. Place mixture in greased 8-inch by 8-inch pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Allow to cool for one hour before cutting.
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