Earth Day 2023: Celebrating the rise of the corporate take-back program

If Earth Day honors the collective achievements of the environmental movement, celebrating corporate take-back programs isn’t a particularly intuitive topic for an Earth Day post. After all, most corporate take-back programs are quite small in comparison to total sales and almost all of them are structured as loyalty programs where used branded goods are returned in exchange for store credit, not cash. Some programs seem so small that it’s hard to believe that program implementation and operation costs are justified. That’s why they’re worth a closer look. If there isn’t a clear economic reason for something happening, there’s more to the story.

Survey results indicate that a preference for more sustainable products is now deeply entrenched in our society’s collective psyche. A recent consumer survey found that 83% of respondents believe it’s important or extremely important for companies to design products that are meant to be reused or recycled. Another found that 7 out of 10 Americans would go out of their way to support a company that makes strong efforts to be sustainable. While survey results are notoriously tricky to interpret, the simplest explanation for results like these would be to assume that people aren’t lying and that they really believe that more needs to be done to make our economy and lifestyle less impactful.

At the same time, other survey results suggest that if people really cared as much as they say they care about sustainability, they would more clearly shop their values. While multiple studies have concluded that some consumers are willing pay a little more for sustainable products and a few are willing to pay a lot more, the number of consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products is nowhere near the number of consumers that report that sustainability is important to them. These studies typically go on to estimate the scale of a “say-do” gap (or the more politely phrased “intention-action” gap) and then put forward a few guesses as to why this gap exists.

Studies are designed to answer questions. If the question is how to make consumers pay top dollar for a more eco-friendly product, studies that assess how much extra consumers will pay for more sustainable products are probably quite useful. If the question is whether consumers care about sustainability generally, that’s not what these studies measure. These studies measure consumer response to products marketed as sustainable. The problem with this approach is that, even if a product is marketed as sustainable, there’s no guarantee that the sustainability claim is credible or relevant. Can we safely conclude that someone who wants to avoid sunburn while mowing the lawn doesn’t care about the integrity of the marine environment if they choose to bypass the “reef-safe” sunscreen? If a cleaning product is labeled phosphate-free but comes with a host of safety warnings, doesn’t that send a mixed message? Is a package made with 25% recycled content enough? Some people don’t shop their values. But equally true is that some marketing campaigns provide information that is misleading, irrelevant or simply not compelling. Until the relative quality of sustainability claims is standardized, consumer response to sustainability-based marketing cannot be assumed to accurately reflect how important the issue is to people.

People changing their habits or attitudes is a better indicator of their values. One relatively recent example of changing consumer attitudes and habits is the rise of resale. This change is related to how much people value sustainability. Although resale has always happened at some level, the recent change is that resale may now be happening on a scale that traditional retail finds threatening. Resale rates appear to be picking up for a few reasons. First, previously unavailable online marketplaces have made it easier for individuals and small organizations to get involved in buying and selling used goods. Second, the previously existing social stigma associated with buying secondhand goods is now more than counterbalanced by a rising appreciation of the environmental benefit of extending the service life of already manufactured items. Third, people want to get involved. This 2022 Ebay user survey suggests that sustainability was very or somewhat important to 93% of consumer-to-consumer (C2C) sellers. This remarkable study found that municipal solid waste generation declined by 3% to 5% when Craigslist became active in an area. This OfferUp recommerce report suggests that the average American made $368 selling furniture and home goods on resale marketplaces in 2020, which means that resale could be capturing between 5 and 10% of what Americans spend on furniture and home goods annually and displacing an even larger fraction of retail sales. The scale of resale now appears to be significant to the scale of the overall economy and the sector is poised for further growth. Consumers have made this happen by taking matters into their own hands.

Companies with an ear to the ground seem to be reaching the collective conclusion that resale is fast becoming an inevitable component of retail and the best approach is to join in, not fight it. Patagonia and Columbia Sportswear launched what would become their branded used gear trade-in programs in 2017. Their lead has been more recently followed by the likes of REI Co-op, lululemon, Carharrt and more. Apple, whose marketing prowess is legendary, has accepted trade-ins of some products for store credit for almost a decade and routinely sells “Apple Certified Refurbished” products at a relative price discount. Walmart has stepped forward with “Walmart Restored”. Ikea is testing a “Buy Back and Resell” program at some store locations and that list of locations is likely to grow. Best Buy accepts product trade-ins of multiple tech brands in exchange for a Best Buy gift card. Amazon’s trade-in program is similar. All programs are tightly tied to corporate sustainability messaging. From a distance, the overall effort might look underwhelming but these programs could be signaling a major future market change. If these programs are successful, they will grow and additional programs will be implemented.

Credible sustainability claims aren’t obscure or incomprehensible. They’re specific, logical and process-related. “Preowned” makes sense and is the sustainability claim behind resale even if it isn’t printed on the package because there often is no package. “Made from recycled materials” makes sense. “Locally produced” would benefit from a bit more specificity but mostly makes sense. “Lifetime guarantee” doesn’t require further explanation. “Free of unnecessary plastic” is clear and crisp. That’s why, this Earth Day, Black Squirrel Farms is pleased to announce that we are now a supplier to Marilla’s Mindful Supplies. Located on 438 Exchange St in Geneva, NY, Marilla’s is working to provide necessary household supplies with as little plastic and packaging as possible. Most of the products that Marilla’s sells are consumables, like toiletries, cleaners and beauty supplies, products for which the idea of resale does not apply. Having nothing left after products like these are used is ideal. Will we someday look back and notice that flat-out consumer rejection of overpackaged products and single-use packaging has led to significant and positive changes in how products are transported, stored and marketed? It’s hard to predict but the story of resale suggests that if enough people care enough about a topic to makes specific lifestyle changes, they can move the needle economy-wide.

The reason to celebrate corporate take-back programs isn’t for the programs themselves. Celebrate them because they appear to be a response to consumer consensus that the benefit of resale is now so clear and so generally accepted that we can count on it being an unavoidable component of retail going forward. Those who want to be involved in retail in the future will need to have a plan for how to handle resale. That’s a major change and it doesn’t cost consumers an extra dime. Those studying how much extra consumers are willing to pay for sustainability branding will have completely missed it. And if they missed that, what else are they missing?

Happy Earth Day 2023 from Black Squirrel Farms.

A living wage for ecosystems

On January 27, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order called “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad”. It included the following text: “The Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, through the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality shall, as appropriate, solicit input from State, local, Tribal, and territorial officials, agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, and other key stakeholders in identifying strategies that will encourage broad participation in the goal of conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.” As an agricultural / forest landowner, Black Squirrel Farms is delighted to be considered a key stakeholder in an issue of national significance and we stand by, ready to receive a call and provide input on the matter.

Additional text in the executive order indicates that stakeholder input is intended to help develop a report, due within 90 days of the order date, which will recommend steps that the United States should take to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. Forty-seven days have already passed without us receiving a call. Because the schedule is getting tight, we decided to expedite providing our input by publishing this convenient and easily sharable web page.

From our perspective, we appear poised to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Often, when land conservation is discussed, conserving the land is a side issue with the real objective being to conserve the natural processes or resources that the land supports, retains or provides. “Acreage” is not a direct indicator of conservation value. Not all acres have the ability to contribute equally to conservation goals, whether that goal is biodiversity preservation, related to soil carbon or carbon sequestration or involves the provision of critical ecosystem services. Location matters. Geology matters. Biology matters. Climate matters. Land management decisions and practices matter. To avoid confusion, we aren’t against conserving land. We are against using indirect indicators to measure progress against goals.

A direct measurement of conservation would assess the robustness of ongoing trophic processes key to healthy earth system functioning. Because directly measuring conservation would involve understanding which species are present, at what levels and how populations act, interact, and change with time, direct measurement of conservation at the national landscape level appears unrealistic at present. That said, measuring the amount of energy available on an ongoing basis to run the trophic processes that result in conservation appears achievable. A conservation target to ensure that sufficient energy remains available to support ecosystem functioning, which is in practice a guaranteed living wage for ecosystems, makes sense. The metric which could be used to set and monitor such a goal is called “Net Primary Productivity” and it isn’t new. What is relatively new is that NASA and others feel that they can map it using calibrated high-resolution satellite-collected data.

Broadly, Gross Primary Productivity (GPP) is all the solar energy that plants chemically capture every year. Net Primary Productivity (NPP) is the energy plants capture and don’t use for respiration. Therefore, NPP can be approximately conceptualized as the amount of new organic matter created by plants each year. This plant material, which is in effect chemically captured energy, then powers the rest of earth’s complex food webs. Just as a car needs fuel, ecosystems need NPP.

The idea of NPP can be extended to differentiate between potential NPP and actual NPP. Potential NPP is the solar energy that local climatic and geologic conditions suggest plants should be able to capture whereas actual NPP is the solar energy that plants actually do capture. Potential and actual NPP can be different for lots of reasons and some, like wildfires or diseases, are natural but at a high level, much of the difference between potential and actual NPP is related to the impact of human-induced landscape changes. To illustrate the difference between actual and potential NPP, assuming equal climate and geology, a parking lot just won’t grow as much plant material each year as a grassland. The parking lot and grassland could have the same potential NPP but a very different actual NPP.

If human impact on NPP was restricted only to how landscape modification impacts plant growth each year globally, comparing potential and actual NPP would come close to describing human impact on the ecosystem’s energy budget. However, just as ecosystems consume NPP to support ongoing functioning, so do people. We consume NPP directly as food, livestock feed, fuel, fiber, lumber and more. Therefore, to understand human impact on NPP, we need to consider both the NPP whose growth we suppress through landscape changes plus the NPP which is consumed to support human purposes. Human appropriated net primary production (HANPP) is the term used for this aggregate impact. HANPP includes the actual or potential NPP that people use (such as, we eat it or burn it for fuel), co-opt (such as, we feed it to livestock then eat the livestock) or forego (such as, this land used to have the net primary productivity of a mature forest and now has the net primary productivity of a highway). How much of global potential NPP are people already using? This paper estimated that the global HANPP level had already reached 23.8% of potential NPP by 2007 and this is not the highest estimate published. The implication is that the complex webs of millions of non-human species that rely on earth’s ongoing NPP levels now operate with only about 75% of the energy that was available to them just a few hundreds of years ago. And while this is a shockingly high rate of global NPP which has been diverted to support a single species over the course of just a few short centuries, keep in mind that HANPP is indicative only of the bioenergy that people use. Human consumption of energy from sources other than biomass was not considered.

If there’s an acronym for human appropriated NPP, there should be an acronym for NPP not appropriated by humans. Let’s call this “ecosystem available” NPP (EANPP). Broadly, EANPP should represent the ongoing energy budget available to power the functioning of earth’s natural biological systems. In terms of setting a conservation target, we’d prefer that a “minimum EANPP” target be set rather than a fixed amount of land designated “conserved”. Certainly, the need to protect natural ecosystem functioning is real and immediate. This relatively recent study revealed that farmed poultry in units of biomass now makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, meaning that only 30% of all birds today are wild. This same study found that 60% of all mammal biomass on Earth is livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% is human and just 4% is wild mammals. It certainly appears that a planet full of wild species is turning into a planet full of domesticated food animals, pets and crop plants as a result of human activity. If that isn’t the world we want to live in and hand off to future generations, taking intentional steps to reverse this trend is necessary.

Even though a minimum EANPP wouldn’t measure the quality of the natural biological functioning supported, it would make sure that the energy available to accomplish such functioning remains available. Deciding whether land should be considered “conserved” and therefore count towards a fixed acreage target will always be a minority exercise. Land ownership, like wealth, is highly concentrated. According to this 2016 paper by New York University economist Edward Wolff, the wealthiest 1 percent of US households owned 40 percent of the nation’s non-home real estate just a couple of years ago. The people most likely to be involved in a national discussion about conserving a fixed number of acres are landowners, government representatives and people who care deeply about the issue. Endless squabbling amongst this minority about the definition of “conserved land” and how conservation should be rewarded is a plausible outcome. It’s equally plausible that any program implemented would end up preferentially “conserving” acreage that doesn’t have economic value for much else, which is likely a non-optimal conservation outcome. If broad participation in delivering a conservation objective is desired, a stated objective in the executive order, there will clearly need to be a way for people who don’t own land or only own a small piece of land to contribute. Anyone could help deliver a minimum EANPP. On every acre and associated with every lifestyle, opportunities exist to make things better or worse for non-human species. Actual NPP can even exceed potential NPP. Just consider that 20-50 times more lettuce can be grown in a greenhouse than a field. Continued advances in agricultural and food management technology can increase the size of the NPP pie or reduce HANPP levels in ways we have not yet imagined. Limiting the conservation solution space to “this land shall be designated as conserved or not”, even if many factors are taken into consideration in order to make such a decision, is far too narrow and will at best deliver a sub-optimal result at high cost.

The reason we would prefer a conservation goal expressed in terms of minimum EANPP vs. land area conserved becomes clear by looking at our site. On our 8.5 acre site is mostly a second-growth forest with an unusually high proportion of black walnut trees, an unusually high proportion of ash trees, some oaks, a few basswood trees, an experimental planting of hazelnuts, a couple of maples and an understory comprised of grass and a mix of other herbaceous and woody native and non-native plants common to the region. We are in the process of constructing a small building to support black walnut shelling operations. Constructing the building required the construction of a driveway that, while permeable, will not support plant growth to a pre-driveway level. We’re hoping to install ground-mounted solar onsite in 2022 or 2023. Our ash trees are in the process of being killed by a regional emerald ash borer infestation that we are powerless to prevent. The actual NPP of our site has degraded under our control. Would our site qualify as “conserved”? Probably not for a fair definition of the word conserved. On the other hand, does this site have more ecosystem value than it would if it was used as a cornfield? Absolutely. Over the next few years, can we figure out how to make our site better for people and planet?  We certainly believe so.  Do we want to be limited in the options that we can consider to try to achieve this goal? Of course we don’t. And this is why recognition of “partial conservation credit” needs to be possible not just for our site but for all sites under whatever conservation assessment framework is adopted. The traditional idea of conservation is “hands off” and binary (yes/no) with no easy way to recognize partial credit. Figuring out how to maintain or increase EANPP is “hands on” with a broad associated set of possible solutions. Like pretty much everything else, degree of human impact on the landscape is a continuum, not a binary state of impacted / not impacted. It is the rare site that provides absolutely nothing for people or absolutely nothing of ecosystem value; most sites provide a mix of both. Could our site participate in a goal of conserving a fixed number of acres? Probably not, we intend for our site to be working land. Could our site participate in a conservation goal of making 80% of potential NPP ecosystem available? We’d certainly try.

If we didn’t agree that the issue was important, we would not have taken the time to express a view. If we didn’t think that there was at least some chance that our view would find additional support, this post would not have been published. We think there are probably a lot of sites out there like ours, where expressing a conservation goal in terms of EANPP allows them to participate in delivering a conservation solution without going so far as requiring the site to be considered “conserved”. We now consider our civic duty discharged as we have provided input on the matter under discussion. We encourage others to do likewise.

See the upside in online order over-packaging

E-commerce has boomed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  Less widely noted, residential trash generation rates have spiked.  One link between these trends is the additional shipping material showing up on doorsteps around the country and then making its way into residential trash and recycling bins. For most people, having to manage additional and to some degree unavoidable household waste falls somewhere between tedious and depressing and those more negatively impacted are often individuals who try very hard to reduce their individual environmental footprint. Seeing an increase in the volume of stuff destined straight for near-term disposal can feel like a defeat if one is working diligently to minimize this very thing.

A box with stuff inside. How complicated can this be?

All changes have upsides and downsides. This change has broadly visible downside manifesting where people live while the upsides are far less obvious. A balanced response requires seeing both the good and the bad. One key to appreciating the upside of this particular change is to learn to see your e-commerce packages as both the stuff you order and as little bundles of personal supply chain influence. Developing confidence that your little bundles of supply chain influence did their best to minimize their environmental impact regardless of whether they arrived in a too-large box filled with unnecessary air pillows is one way to mitigate frustration with excessive online purchase packaging. We’ll explain.

A bit of terminology clarification is needed. People who work in packaging classify packaging material into categories of primary, secondary, tertiary and so on.  Primary packaging holds a product together; think of a potato chip bag holding a bunch of potato chips as primary packaging. Secondary packaging is packaging for packaging and is not in direct contact with a product; think of a grocery bag holding multiple bags of potato chips. A delivered online order is a combination of services, a product or products plus a delivery. Unlike when you lift a product off a store shelf and put it in your cart, and act which generally involves primary packaging only, a package delivered to your home usually includes both primary and secondary packaging where the box/bubble wrap/padded mailer etc. is the secondary packaging. Keeping this distinction in mind is important because primary and secondary packages serve different purposes.

The original title of this post was “Making Peace with Online Order Packaging in Three Easy Steps” and it was changed because there are already those who are at peace with online order packaging. For those that aren’t, the three steps are presented below.

Step #1: Define “over-packaged” according to packaging purpose.

The ideal amount of packaging needed from an environmental perspective is the minimum needed to do the job. For a product sold online, primary packaging needs to contain the product and meet minimum labeling requirements. When that same product is sold from a store shelf, the primary packaging also needs to attract interest from potential buyers but this function is less relevant for online sales. The main purpose of secondary packaging for online orders is to prevent returns due to damage. Returns are both an economic and environmental loss and so a little more mass per package to deliver a lower rate of product returns could make good environmental sense.

Treat excessive primary packaging and excessive secondary packaging as separate issues. It’s more accurate to consider secondary packaging as a way of seeing a little more deeply into the supply chain. Keep in mind that items on a store shelf arrived at the store in at minimum some secondary packaging and probably some tertiary packaging, all of which was managed outside the customer’s view. As online order volumes increase, consumers get more of a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes and many are really unhappy with what they see. Since unhappy customers drive change, we believe that ecommerce packaging is an area about to experience very rapid innovation.

And guess what other trend is being driven by the coronavirus pandemic? Commercial trash generation rates are down.

Step #2: Apply the right “R” at the right time.

Primary packaging and secondary packaging are at two different stages in the product lifecycle. This is important because the most environmentally effective question that can be asked about how to manage stuff depends on product lifecycle stage. With respect to an online order just delivered, the product, including the primary packaging, has just exited the “delivery” stage and is at the very beginning of the “use” phase.  The secondary packaging has just exited the “use” phase and is just entering the “end of life” phase. Given the well-known hierarchy of “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle”, keeping a product’s lifecycle stage in mind helps one apply the most appropriate “R” to understand probable options available for that product going forward.

The most environmentally effective question that can be asked about a product just entering the “use” phase of the product lifecycle, like an online order just received, is “Reduce”. “Refuse” is generally off the table at this point. “How can I extend the useful life of this?” or “Can this be used in a lower-impact way?” are the type of questions likely to yield greatest environmental impact for a product about to be used.

Secondary packaging is mostly unbranded with a generic design. The upside is that these attributes make it easier to find ways to reuse secondary packaging compared to primary packaging.

The most environmentally effective question that can be asked about a product just entering the “end of life” phase is “Reuse”. “Recycle” is the one to consider only if “Reuse” doesn’t work out. Secondary packaging for an online order received is at the “end of life” product lifecycle stage and the open question with the greatest potential environmental impact is whether there are viable reuse options worth pursuit.  Given more than one reuse option, a hierarchy of environmental preferability applies. It’s preferable to reuse the secondary packaging its original form. It’s preferable if the secondary packaging doesn’t need to travel far in order to be reused. Even modified reuse, such as substituting used bubble mailers for bubble wrap, or partial reuse is generally preferable to recycling or discarding. The upside associated with secondary packaging is that it is much less likely to be customized to a specific product and therefore much easier to re-purpose than primary packaging. Time spent thinking through options for secondary packaging reuse is likely well spent in terms of environmental impact.  Once a reuse solution for secondary packaging is found, it is likely, ahem, reusable.

Step #3: Prioritize cushioning the highest-impact stage in a product’s lifecycle. 

An online consumer has the greatest ability to influence the total environmental impact of their purchases at the point of deciding to buy or not buy. Though there are exceptions to every rule, thoughtful procurement or non-procurement is the highest-impact lever a sustainability-minded consumer can pull. “Refuse”, the most powerful and least understood “R”, pulls up a chair and has a seat at the table when a buy-or-pass decision is being made, whether his presence is acknowledged or not. “What is it that I want to refuse and how much refusing can I do given other considerations?” is the often overlooked and often consequential question.

If the intent is to refuse as much environmental impact as possible (and all online purchases have some environmental impact), then the goal must be to refuse the greatest amount of environmental impact for the least cost while honoring other purchasing decision constraints.  A product’s total environmental footprint is the sum of the impact of all stages in the product lifecycle. Logically, the most effective way to mitigate environmental impact through product selection is to select for superior environmental performance specifically during the highest-impact product lifecycle stage. To do this effectively, one needs to know in advance which product lifecycle stage likely has the greatest environmental impact for any product.  Luckily, this can be much simpler than it sounds.

In general, for consumables (stuff intending to be used up and then replaced), the majority of the product’s environmental impact is associated with making the product in the first place. As an example, this study of the environmental impact of paper towels found that manufacturing paper towels has about an order of magnitude more impact than shipping, using and disposing of paper towels. Therefore, if paper towels are needed, buy them from a source working to reduce paper towel manufacturing footprint and, for now, don’t worry too much about the packaging and shipping impact. Packaging and shipping is relevant but in this case not the biggest lever that can be pulled. In contrast, for durable goods, like a hot water heater or a washing machine or an air conditioner, the result flips. Generally, the majority of the environmental impact from durable goods is incurred during the “use” phase. Therefore, to prioritize reducing the environmental impact of products like these, prioritize operational efficiency to the degree possible. Consumable / durable is a spectrum and many products fall somewhere between these two end members. For example, this summary of a Levi’s jeans study, jeans being a product somewhere in between clearly consumable and clearly durable, reported that most of the environmental impact of a pair of jeans was incurred during washing (use phase) … but only by a little bit.  A change in the study’s jeans washing frequency assumption changed the study’s result, which indicates that the environmental impact of the manufacturing and the use of jeans is probably comparable. Toys, clothes, sports equipment and similar all fall into this gray area. When in doubt, assume consumable and for these less clear-cut cases that we’ll refer to as semi-consumable, there’s often the option of buying used. For products like jeans, trying to target the highest-impact phase of the product lifecycle may be, well, kind of a wash but buying used drops the effective environmental footprint of product’s manufacturing phase to zero and that alone tips the scales.

This post was inspired by a white paper that reported that 77% of consumers judge the environmental credentials of a company by their packaging. We’re proud of our company’s environmental credentials and given that we are an early-stage company still developing our products, packaging optimization is something we intended to address later. However, if 77% of all potential customers are going to judge us by our packaging then this needs to be addressed sooner. So, we have now adopted a goal of slowly increasing the fraction of packages that we ship in reused secondary packaging. We’re starting by making the mailers for our smallest single-item orders out of used paper grocery bags. And we’ve published an online guide to making these mailers at home.

If you’ve got kids, imagine how fun it could be for friends and relatives to be on the receiving end of handmade paper mailers with kid art accents.

Making mailers from paper grocery bags isn’t where we expect to end up long term. Nobody really has sustainable packaging figured out. Some of the most environmentally progressive companies out there have figured out how to use upcycled waste as primary packaging or have developed trackable, reusable secondary packaging or have designed packaging that serves as both primary and secondary packaging but no one has come up with a true zero-waste solution assuming a holistic zero-waste definition is applied. The upside of general dissatisfaction with current online order packaging norms is that this dissatisfaction should drive significant improvement the near-term. And until such improvement manifests, we hope that our three-step approach to seeing and leveraging the upsides of online order packaging is helpful for both managing the status quo and making your future bundles of supply chain influence a bit more influential. Please use your power wisely.

We can always be reached through our contact page

Thanks for your interest and support.

In defense of the black walnut tree

The black walnut tree is having a tough time finding the love and respect it needs these days.

Our black walnut trees grow in New York State, so we’ll review the evidence of their ongoing struggle for positive recognition starting there. Check out the presence of black walnut trees in the U.S. Forest Service’s New York Forest Inventory results. Spoiler: black walnut hardly registers, indicating that the tree is not seen as particularly key to the 63% of in-state land considered forest. The first mention of black walnut in this 100+ page report is in the Appendix as a “tree found on key tree plots”, the academic equivalent of “meh”. This New York-focused native tree planting guide simply ignores the native black walnut tree despite practically every long-term resident of central and western New York knowing someone who owns one.  Even more discouraging, most major land grant universities have published articles with titles like “black walnut toxicity”, warning readers that this tree does not necessarily play well with certain others and advising landowners to think twice before considering the black walnut as a landscaping tree. With press this negative, it’s not hard to see why black walnut struggles to be included on everyone’s “favorite big tree” list.

“A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut. Nobody does plant them nowadays-when you see a walnut it is almost invariably an old tree. If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren?”

~ George Orwell


This pattern of digital disrespect through neglect, omission or outright hostility would lead the curious dabbler to believe that the black walnut just isn’t a desirable tree. It’s messy. It’s unfriendly to other plants. The incentives to plant black walnut trees aren’t obvious unless one’s goal is to grow valuable hardwood to probably benefit the grandkids or someday-grandkids. So how does this apparent black walnut apathy-at-best reconcile with information which links the Haudenosaunee (the Native American nations more commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy and whose historical territory was upstate New York) to black walnut advocacy? The key research finding is that black walnut trees were often observed around Haudenosaunee village sites or even, as has been suggested, almost exclusively within 5 km of village sites. Such a distribution pattern would suggest a prized tree, not a problem tree. These findings suggest that people went out of their way to make sure black walnut trees had a competitive edge over other trees and were easily accessible to the people who cared about them. Black walnut tree biology hasn’t changed that much over the last few hundred years, so what did change … and is it important now?

Travel back about 300 years in your mind to a Haudenosaunee village and consider what day-to-day worries would dominate. The Haudenosaunee needed to be able to survive cold winters without electricity, synthetic insulation, long-distance transport, furnaces, stoves or other amenities now considered necessities and supplied by the global economy. Their bodies would need more energy, not less, during the cold months and available to meet this need would be such food reserves as they had been able to produce and preserve plus any anything additional that could be obtained through ongoing hunting and/or fishing. Black walnuts are rich in oil, grow without the need for care and once husked but not shelled will stay good for months if not years. The only way nature could design a better winter survival food would be to make it easier to get the nutmeat out of the shells and to make annual yield more predictable. The Haudenosaunee baked black walnut nutmeat into cornbread and simmered the cracked nuts in water to extract oil. It would be interesting to know whether villages with more black walnut or other kinds of nut trees nearby managed the winter better than those without.

That was back then. If Americans now face hunger they are more likely to associate this problem with the economy or politics than winter. Our great challenge isn’t making it through the cold season, it’s figuring out how we will manage the collective resources of the country in a manner that supports people and doesn’t continue to degrade the ecological systems on which we depend. Here again, with this present-day challenge, the black walnut tree can assist but only will if we, like the Haudenosaunee, recognize and take advantage of this potential help on offer. Climate-smart agriculture is how we will eventually deliver food security under changing environmental conditions. The currently wide geographic range of the black walnut tree demonstrates that the species can thrive across a similarly wide climate range. Any plant that can produce calorie and nutrient-dense food with no chemical inputs and minimal care should be warmly welcomed as a potential partner in human endeavors. It makes no sense to shun black walnuts because many types of plants won’t thrive near them; this can be easily addressed by letting black walnut trees grow in locations where this trait is not a problem. The black walnut is being subjected to an unfair standard. Consider the number of non-corn plant species that are allowed to thrive in the middle of, for example, a corn field. In comparison, the black walnut is far more forgiving.

We should be rolling out the welcome mat for the black walnut and more actively figuring out additional ways to use this unique North American renewable resource. Modern technology allows us to get more from this tree than was possible for the Haudenosaunee. In addition to food, black walnut shells are used by industry for blast cleaning, polishing, water filtration (oil/water separation) and more. Processed black walnut shells are useful at home, too, with applications which include home cleaning, personal care and making non-skid paint. We’ve figured out how to make stainless steel cleaner out of bar soap and black walnut shells. No matter how they are used, renewable and biodegradable black walnut shells often displace non-renewable alternatives without sacrificing performance. It’s impressive that one plant can produce high-quality food, raw material for industrial and household products, grow the national hardwood resource base and enhance animal habitat all at the same time and do this using mostly non-agricultural land and no synthetic chemical inputs. The fact that most black walnuts are left lying on the ground every year is proof positive that we’ve hardly begun to realize the value which could be extracted from standing black walnut trees, let alone black walnut trees yet to be planted.

“Early colonists soon discovered the eastern black walnut, (juglans nigra), a native to North America. The great dimension of the trees made it a conspicuous marker of the fertility of the land.” (McComb Daily, 2014)

Far more than many other tree species, black walnuts need people. Black walnuts trees seeded without human intervention are only found near other black walnut trees because squirrels bury nuts close to where they find them. Shade-intolerant young black walnut trees can’t successfully compete underneath a well-developed forest canopy. Therefore, the area for black walnut tree expansion without human intervention is limited to disturbed areas which could eventually become forest (areas with few trees but enough rain to support trees) and near where black walnut trees are already growing. There’s a lot of competition for these types of spaces and, as it turns out, most of the competition grows faster than black walnut trees.

When we harvest the best trees and leave those less desirable standing, we promote survival of the less fit.

The vast majority of standing black walnut trees are owned by farmers and miscellaneous private individuals, in sharp contrast to the conifer forests of the Unites States which are largely owned by the United States Government or commercial forest products companies. This means that long-term black walnut success really is a tree popularity contest. What happens on the land of today’s tree owners is what will write the future story of the black walnut. Whether the black walnut population will grow or decline is likely a function of how much current tree owners like their black walnut trees. If the broad spectrum of individuals who are black walnut tree owners don’t like their trees, the fate of the species is sadly predictable.

We’ll know that the tide has turned for black walnuts when people see them on the ground and think “resource” not “yard waste”. Not everyone thinks “yard waste”. Hammons Products Company, in Missouri, processes roughly 25 million pounds of nuts annually and most of those are grown and gathered by independent growers located within a few hundred miles of their processing plant so those tree owners must see their black walnuts as a resource. Our company, Black Squirrel Farms, is a tiny little company in New York with about 80 mature black walnut trees of our own but we are running a local black walnut collection program to serve nearby growers and if you’ve got mature black walnut trees in the Finger Lakes area of New York, we would love to have you join our program. Even if you don’t have black walnut trees or live in the Finger Lakes area of New York, you can help. Eat black walnuts; we’ll have shelled black walnuts for sale online in Spring 2022 but our supply will be limited and if you can’t buy them from us, buy from someone else. Give some of the non-intuitive uses of black walnut shells a try, like our anti-skid additive for paint. Help us find and publish new and heritage black walnut recipes by sending yours to Let’s make the black walnut popular again, 300+ years later.

It may turn out that in the long run we need black walnut trees as much as they need us now.

NY Finger Lakes 2019 Black Walnut Yield: Down But Not Out

It was late July, 2019 and a normal Finger Lakes summer. The water temperature in Seneca Lake had morphed from threatening into almost pleasant, a handful of boats were out on the water and, for the first time, we were busy readying Black Squirrel Farms to accept black walnuts for fall processing. Our 2019 plan was to grow and process the black walnuts from our 80+ trees on 590 State Route 14 and collect and process black walnuts from other area growers. We were so focused on what was happening on the ground that it took us until July to notice that this year our trees didn’t seem to be growing black walnuts.

Our trees looked healthy, with green leaves and no obvious widespread insect damage so we ruled out an unidentified infestation or disease as the likely cause of our production deficit. We opened some early-falling walnuts and found partially formed shells and black glistening masses instead of nutmeat. Underdeveloped walnuts falling early can indicate insufficient pollination. While there are many ways pollination can go wrong, most are related to weather and the weather irregularity most likely to cause widespread loss is temperature. Spring temperatures below 26°F will kill emerging buds and destroy catkins and pistillate flowers.

A review of Penn Yan airport weather station data revealed that exposure of our trees to temperatures of 26 F or below could have happened as late as April 29, 2019. This is unusually late for temperatures this cold. Logically, if the April 29 cold snap caused our walnut deficit, other area growers would be similarly affected. To test this, we reached out to regional black walnut growers in late July and early August. The map below compares black walnut yield estimates from these growers with the April 29 temperature lows from NOAA monitoring stations. Without the benefit of sophisticated climate modeling to guide us, we crudely defined two areas probably exposed to temperatures cold enough to damage vulnerable non-dormant black walnut tissue on April 29.

Figure: April 29, 2019 Low Temperatures and 2019 Black Walnut Yield at Selected Sites



It’s not clear that sites within this cold exposure zone on fared significantly worse than sites outside this zone. “Maybe a little” is a fair response to that question. It does appear that sites nearest the largest and the deepest of the Finger Lakes, such as ours, fared demonstrably worse.

Even if it the cold temperatures on April 29 did inhibit 2019 black walnut yield, how that happened is likely not as simple as “our blooms froze”. We couldn’t find many reasons to believe that our trees were blooming on April 29 and we hadn’t been monitoring our trees. The information we found signaled that a mid-May bloom date is most likely for our site. For example, a still-cited 1915 article indicates that black walnut trees flower in early April in the southern portion of their North American range then progressively closer to the beginning of June at northern sites like ours. In contrast and confusingly, Wikipedia suggests that black walnut budbreak travels north to south, governed by a 14-hour day length requirement for leafout. Interestingly, this implies first leaves by the end of April and blooms in mid-May for our site. Some excellent 2002-2006 work done with multiple cultivars in New Franklin, Missouri reveals a preponderance of mean pistillate flower bloom dates in mid-May. Both our site and New Franklin, Missouri are in USDA plant hardiness zone 6a, so this study signals mid-May blooms for our trees by analogy. Certainly, trees experience annual variability in bloom date. While we don’t know how much annual variability is normal for black walnuts, the well-documented long-term bloom history of Washington D.C.’s famous cherry trees shows that while cherry tree peak bloom dates often vary by more than two weeks from one year to the next, peak bloom more than ten days earlier or later than the long-term average is possible but unusual. Earlier blooming in recent decades has been widely noticed for many northern plant species but the New Franklin work is recent enough to have inherently taken this into account. This information taken together makes it seem implausible that our black walnut trees were blooming in late April and therefore had blooms susceptible to the cold snap.

Do black walnut trees near the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes bloom earlier or later than other Central New York black walnut trees? Could our trees have lost their first set of emerging leaves to cold and then, rather than expend already-depleted starch reserves on a nut crop, used their depleted energy supplies to create another set of leaves? Our takeaway is that until we can observe black walnuts growing, it makes sense to assume that the scale of that year’s black walnut crop is unpredictable. Year to year variability in local and regional black walnut yield is almost certainly driven by more than just the alternate bearing nature of the trees. We are responding to this year’s disappointing yield by deferring some of our 2019 plans until 2020 and moving multi-year black walnut storage capability from our “nice to have” to our “need to have” column. Perhaps the science enabling us to predict black walnut yield earlier than a few months before harvest will emerge but until then we will treat an unpredictably fluctuating crop volume as just another known business challenge.

A toilet cleaning fairy tale

Once upon a time, there was a home with a toilet. That toilet needed occasional cleaning. This was a job none of the good people who lived in the home really wanted to do. Then, from the depths of the supermarket aisle for cleaning supplies, a hero arose to take on that very challenge. Just by squirting it on or letting it fizz or dropping it in the tank, this hero would cling/foam/dissolve/shine/coat/disinfect/deodorize to bravely fight toilet-dwelling life forms and stains of all origins, leaving the bowl sparkling clean for the good people of the home. The battle line between good vs. evil was drawn and the enemy was beaten back to a position of retreat located somewhere downstream of the flange in the bathroom floor. Our hero was victorious and is happily affordable enough to be with the good people of the home forever after.

And that’s the end, right?

This compelling story has been told many times. However, one feature of stories is that they often require the listener to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the story. What realities lurk uncomfortably behind the scenes? It’s time to have a look at some of the plot holes.

Plot hole #1: The toilet (or toilet seat) is the grossest, dirtiest thing in the house and therefore fighting that monster with the most powerful weapons available makes sense.

A lot of work suggests that toilet seats are generally quite clean compared to household items like toothbrushes and toothbrush holders, bathmats or (possibly the worst), used kitchen sponges or dishrags. Interestingly and arguably, one of the most effective steps that can taken to minimize the spread of household toilet-related germs is to flush with the lid down and then lift the lid back up to let it dry post-flush. Flushing makes a small fraction of toilet water go airborne and toilets are most often flushed when their contents are less than pristine. How tough the bad guy in our story is may not be related to how tough the bad guy looks.

Plot hole #2: Potent chemicals either disappear or become harmless once flushed and so our hero will never become a villain.

Our story doesn’t state this but it is implied. Most chemicals capable of harming or killing life don’t stop being chemicals capable of harming or killing life just because they happen to be flushed down a toilet. Perhaps instead of a good guy/bad guy story, the more honest tale would be that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the same character with a dual good and evil nature. Check out what the Environmental Working Group has to say about the product you are using now. Over half of the toilet cleaning products on the market score an “F” on their hazard rating scale.

Plot hole #3: Our hero is simple and well understood.

Because of trade secret protection laws, cleaning product manufacturers don’t have to list all ingredients on their label (although some manufacturers commendably do). What is federally required is that household cleaners containing chemicals of known concern name those specific chemicals on their label and include a warning detailing associated risks plus caution statements and first-aid guidance. What if a chemical concern isn’t known? Much more testing has been done to assess risks from acute versus chronic chemical exposure as well as quantify hazards associated with single chemicals versus chemical combinations. The hero of our story is more complicated character than portrayed.

We’re telling a different story. The composition of our toilet-cleaning product isn’t a trade secret – we make our product using baking soda and black walnut shell powder. Our product includes no fragrance of undisclosed origin and no disinfectant. Finely ground black walnut shells act as an abrasive hard enough to effectively clean but soft enough to not scratch porcelain and concurrent scrubbing with an abrasive enables a mild, non-toxic cleaner like baking soda to be more effective. Our product is intended to be part of an integrated cleaning regimen, not a solution for everything. For those who have taken control of their home cleaning routine to such a level that they make their own cleaners, we offer black walnut shell powder as a separate ingredient. There are no plot holes in our story about offering a non-toxic septic-safe aquatic-life-friendly toilet cleaner which includes a biodegradable abrasive made from 100% American-grown black walnuts. We believe that people should know all the ingredients in the household cleaners they are using so that they can make informed choices regarding how they want to clean their home. It’s easy to learn about us. We aren’t complicated and we believe that the more people get to know us, the more they will choose to work with us – and that’s our happily ever after.

Can I put black walnut shells in my recycling bin?

What should go in recycling bins is exactly what the destination facility knows how to process. If the facility receiving the recycling bin contents only knows how to process cardboard, newspaper and aluminum cans and instead they receive coat hangers, those coat hangers are no longer coat hangers but rather “contaminants”. Contaminants are generally diverted to a landfill.

Of course, those same coat hangers holding up clothes in a closet aren’t contaminants. When they are doing their job, they’re coat hangers. Just like some people say that a weed is a plant out of place, waste can be a resource out of place.

At Black Squirrel Farms, we have some ideas about how black walnut shells can be a resource and not a waste and we are proving it by bringing new products to market. Check out our store. Alternatively, consider upcycling black walnut shells. Search on “sliced black walnut shell art” and be amazed.


Are black walnuts and English walnuts different and do English walnuts come from England?

It’s likely that when someone says “walnut”, you imagine an English walnut. The walnuts sold in grocery stores are mostly English walnuts. Black walnuts are available for sale but they are hard to find. Black walnuts and English walnuts have different flavors and shapes. Black walnuts have a bolder taste, with more fruity and musty flavors than English walnuts. The strong flavor makes black walnuts a more attractive ingredient nut as opposed to a snack nut. The less earthy flavor of the English walnut has broader appeal and English walnuts make a great snack. English walnuts have thinner shells that are easier to crack with a higher nutmeat/shell ratio (more meat per nut).  English walnuts are more easily shelled at home with a hand-operated cracker.


Both kinds of walnuts are really healthy foods. Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based source of omega-3 fats. Both kinds have been found to contain phytosterols, a cholesterol-lowering agent. Walnuts are low in saturated fats and high in fiber. Proportionately, English walnuts may have a little more omega-3 than black walnuts but not as much arginine and selenium. There is no wrong answer when trying to choose the healthiest kind of walnut.

Black walnuts are native to North America. But are English walnuts native to England? As it turns out, English walnuts grow in England but that’s not where the tree originated and English walnuts are not a major English commercial crop. The tree originated in the Middle East and the nuts are called English walnuts because historically the English merchant marines would trade them around the world; the nuts became commonly known as English walnuts. The English walnut and the Persian walnut are the same walnut.

Black walnuts are an heirloom American ingredient. Because they have a different flavor than English walnuts, they cannot be substituted 1:1 in recipes calling for walnuts without affecting the recipe outcome. Heirloom ingredients may require heirloom recipes or the creation of new recipes. Here’s a fun example from Sheryl Lazarus, who posts and tries family recipes from a hundred years ago and has noticed that trying these recipes has caused her to eat healthier foods made with local, seasonal ingredients.  Got your own heirloom black walnut recipe over 100 years old?  Please contact us to share.