Did you know Highland County is home to Virginia’s first and only commercial producer of Black Walnut syrup? In fact, they may even be the largest producer in the nation!
Christoph and Lauren Herby of Tonoloway Farm in McDowell, Virginia, are adding to Highland County’s already plentiful syrup-making history with a small, approximate 8 x 10 foot structure – the smallest commercial sugar shack in Highland County and likely in Virginia and the U.S.
So, how, in a county of Maple, did the Herby’s find Black Walnut syrup?
Though they tried other farm production options, such as raising turkeys and sheep, they eventually settled on maple syrup-making – boiling sap over an open flame in their yard.
But after harvesting their first batch of Maple sap, they noticed something.
When you glance across Tonoloway Farm, it’s not hard to spot the most dominant tree species – Black Walnut.
“We were actually kind of scratching our heads thinking ‘Gosh, we wish we had more Maple trees. It’s a shame we’ve got all this walnut…,” Christoph laughs. “Then, I read a sugar-making book that said you could tap walnut trees.”
So, the Herby’s experimentally-tapped a large Walnut tree standing next to their house. When they tasted the fruits of their labors, they found something promising.
“A lot of people consider Black Walnut a nuisance because they take over pastures,” Christoph explains. “This farm used to be all pasture, but we’re thankful it’s turned into what it is.”
In true Highland County style, the Herby’s recognized what they had to work with, figured out how to optimize it, and capitalized.
In other words, the land spoke, and the Herby’s listened.
Now, Highland County’s signature Maple syrup takes a back seat to Black Walnut Syrup at Tonoloway Farm.
What Does It Taste Like?
“It’s a strong, strong flavor,” says Christoph, who adds the flavor isn’t for everyone. He classifies Black Walnut syrup as sweet with a lot more complexity than Maple syrup. (Not to knock its sweet cousin.)
“Half the people taste it and they’re like ‘Whoa… No, that’s not for me. The other half tastes it, and their eyes light up,” explains Christoph. “It’s not every day you’re able to taste a new flavor you’ve never experienced before.”
Personally, I was one of the latter tasters.
My eyes closed at the initial sweetness that blanketed my tongue. But, while my taste buds rode the wave that starts similarly to Maple syrup, my senses soon found out they weren’t ready for the ferocious kick Walnut syrup serves up. My cheeks began to tingle, and my eyes snapped open as my senses dropped into a roller coaster ride.
It was good! Sooooo many different flavors… But, it seems the experience may be different for everyone.
Some culinary experts say it tastes of chocolate or cherry. Some say it has aromas of coffee. I honestly didn’t experience either of those.
I observed the jaw-tickling sweetness of Maple candy, but a savory flavor that might easily accompany Rosemary on a Pork Loin.
“It’s such a bold flavor that I wouldn’t recommend using it on your pancakes,” Christoph laughs. “First of all, that would be an expensive plate of pancakes. Second of all, it’s going to overwhelm the pancakes. It’s more of something to use as a drizzle or a glaze.”
How Do You Process Black Walnut Syrup?
Though Black Walnut syrup is produced similarly to Maple syrup, the process is a bit different.
“We use the same tapping and tubing methods as Maple,” explains Christoph. “We haul the sap in and boil it down.”
One big difference is, some Maple Syrup producers use a Reverse Osmosis machine to remove water from Maple sap, which, as a result, speeds up the syrup-making process. “You can’t do that with Black Walnut,” Christoph warns. Walnut syrup contains pectin, which is used to thicken jams and jellies. “That will clog an R.O. (Reverse Osmosis), and ruin it. So, every drop of our Black Walnut sap is boiled down over a wood fire.”
Filtering is also more complex due to Black Walnut’s pectin content. “You can filter five gallons of Maple syrup in 20 minutes,” Christoph explains. “It’ll take you three or four hours to filter the same amount of Walnut syrup.”
Additionally, Black Walnut sap flows considerably less compared to a Sugar Maple. Christoph estimates for every one Maple tree, it takes seven Black Walnut trees to yield the same amount of sap.
A lesser amount of sap means a smaller supply of product. As a result, the rarity of Black Walnut syrup drives the price up.
“People see the price of Walnut syrup, and they say ‘Yeah, that’s a gold mine!” Christoph says. But Black Walnut production is a bit painstaking, even compared to Maple.
Plus, due to the low sap flow and higher spoil rate of Black Walnut sap, you must do the same amount of work as Maple production. You can’t simply collect the sap and wait until you have a large amount to boil. There’s no opportunity for labor consolidation.
So, even though the price per bottle is higher, the workload is still similar to the Maple process. (And, in some areas, Black Walnut requires a bit more patience!) It simply boils down (no pun intended) to what type of trees you have on your land.
Additionally, Christoph says Black Walnut syrup production requires a significantly smaller operation compared to a Maple Sugar camp.
In other words, if need be, the Herby’s Black Walnut production process could be a one-man show. (At least, two people are ideal.) And, because the trees produce much less sap, large equipment, such as big trucks, tanks, and buildings, aren’t needed to operate the business now and after future growth.
“Personally, I love it because I’m small,” says Christoph. “I work in this little space, it’s cozy, and I don’t have to operate a tractor-trailer to haul 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of sap at a time. Instead, I’m hauling 70 gallons on an ATV.”
Christoph reports Black Walnut syrup is gaining in popularity with chefs, cooks, and simply every-day-folks, who are looking for a new taste. And, with Tonoloway Farm’s early foothold in the industry, they’re primely-positioned to put Highland County on the map, yet again, in the local foods market.
“I just sent Black Walnut syrup to Hawaii last week,” he adds.
In a (Wal)Nut Shell…
The Herby’s currently tap 1,000 Walnut trees, which Christoph suspects are the equivalent to the return of approximately 150 Maple trees.
In a way, it levels out – you’re doing more work per quart to create less of a product, but because of the rarity of Black Walnut syrup, the price per bottle is significantly more. “We’re making a higher-value product, but less of it,” explains Christoph. “Plus, our operation can grow, but still be small in size, which is what we’re excited about.”
So, if you find your land home to a plethora of Black Walnut trees, you may just consider the Black Walnut market. And, if you don’t want to make the syrup yourself, give the Herby’s a call. They might just be interested in doing business with you!
Order Black Walnut and Maple Walnut syrup online through the Tonoloway Farm Online Store!
About the Author
Dorothy Stephenson grew up on her family's cattle operation in Meadowdale, located in the southwest corner of Highland County. When she wasn't on horseback helping her father gather and work cattle, you'd likely find her (still on horseback) jumping creeks in her family's nearby "Big Pasture." Today, though she doesn't ride horses much anymore, she has her own cattle, land, and expansion plans for a farm. Additionally, (and with the inherited, Stephenson, entrepreneurial spirit) she owns two small businesses in Highland County - Sundance Media & Design and Sundance Studio & Productions, which houses another of Dorothy's long-time loves - Clogging. Dorothy loves exploring new places, skills, and ideas, and she intends to live life to the fullest as long as it will let her. (Oh! And she LOVES Christmas!)