Nathan and Olga Crocker
By Andi McKillop
It started as an idea for retirement. At a meeting featuring a prominent economist, Olga Crocker paid attention when an audience member asked what to do to keep active in retirement. Now Olga and her son Nathan have partnered in farming and processing nuts in southern Ontario. “We had 27 acres and thought we’d start a business,” explains Nathan. “Mom suggested a nut farm and the economist thought it was a good idea. The economist was Stephen Harper before he was anybody – and I think he was referring to three or four trees – not 2000.”
Crocker Nuts have gradually been growing the business since 2004 when they planted their first trees, a mixture of hazelnuts, heartnuts, northern pecans, English and black walnuts. Black walnut trees are native to the area and the Crockers already had a number of them on their property. “A black walnut tree is worth about $5,000 at maturity,” says Nathan, “so we’ve planted the trees 10 feet apart for lumber. Through the Northern Nut Growers Association conference we made a contact in Ohio for the walnuts. Hammons Products Company in Missouri has 250 uses for the black walnut shell and makes more money off the shell than the nuts. The shells can be used for sandblasting, heating – they burn more efficiently than wood – and Hammons even has them in brake pads.”
A lot of work goes into growing the nuts that the Crockers sell both shelled and whole. They have an Environmental Farm Plan in place and compost waste products from their farm (grass and tree clippings, hulls and shells from processing), which is then used in the planting of new trees. They use only natural methods of controlling pests and disease – planting only those trees recognized to be immune or resistant to certain diseases and opting to remove or burn trees that do become susceptible to other types of fungus and pests. The use of blood and bone meal effectively fertilizes the trees and deters squirrels from becoming a nuisance – and to keep deer from destroying the trees with their antlers, the Crockers hang dryer sheets in the orchard.
The lifespan of the trees can be up to 100 years. At maturity, a tree will grow to more than 60 feet and harvest approximately a tonne of nuts but, depending on the type of tree, can take anywhere from six to 15 years to produce a saleable crop. In 2013 the Crockers had a small harvest of about 40 or 50 lbs. of hazelnuts, which they sold mainly by word of mouth, small ads and at a roadside stand on their farm. As the trees continue to mature, the harvest will grow and in the meantime the Crockers are developing the marketing and processing aspects of the business.
“With this growth, by the time you get a really good load of nuts you need to have built the facility, so we are working on that now as we have money and time,” explains Nathan. “We’re looking at more than just producing the nuts. We want to be a processor for the surrounding area as well.” When building and designing their processing facility, the Crockers worked with the provincial government to ensure that environmental and food safety requirements were met. Over the next two years they will be implementing a HACCP plan for the processing facility. They have also been working with the University of Windsor and St. Clair College on developing a machine for cracking heartnuts, something the industry has needed for more than 90 years.
Crocker Nuts is also developing a specialty product they call Angel Hearts – a halo of chocolate around a heartnut center that is sold around Valentine’s and Sweetest Day because of its heart shape – and they are beginning to investigate other opportunities, such as nut cooking oils, to diversify their income and grow their business. Theirs is a unique approach to a retirement plan and one that promises returns for more than one generation.