Wisconsin black walnut draws attention and high prices from afar

Export markets credited for steady prices; individual trees selling for premium prices

Pictures from a recent walnut harvest in southern Wisconsin (Picture: John Nielsen of the Walnut Council)

MADISON, Wis. -- Black walnut stumpage prices have held notably steady over the past several years, as demand has continued apace, with reports of buyers traveling to southwest Wisconsin from as far as China to find unique sources of the dark, finely-grained wood.

Considering the sought-after nature of the valuable hardwood, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) data showed that the vast majority of black walnut produced in the state ends up processed and sold in Wisconsin or Iowa, but buyers from much further away, including southeast Asia, have shown up in log yards for first-hand inspections. In some instances, mills will send rolled up samples from different sliced sections of a black walnut via mail for inspection by a foreign buyer.

"Exporting of walnut is common. There's a general trend for the high-quality wood and veneer going over to Europe and also China has traditionally been a big bulk user as well," said Logan Wells, a forest products specialist at the DNR.

Most black walnut is found in the southern part of the state, with roughly 60 percent of the state’s total volume located in the southwest area. The top five county locations are (in order of volume): Grant, Iowa, Dane, Lafayette and Rock. Many of the mills specializing in the species are also in southwest Wisconsin, with one in northwest Iowa.

Local makers of furniture, a popular end product for the wood, have experienced difficulty in finding available black walnut in the state and have had to look elsewhere like Missouri and North Carolina.

The DNR's most recent export data, which was compiled in 2013, showed 25 thousand cubic feet of black walnut industrial roundwood was exported from Wisconsin, while 864 thousand cubic feet remained for in-state production uses. Walnut was the 4th highest produced wood for that study, about a sixth of the amount of red oak that was sent overseas during the same period.

With demand remaining high, black walnut has continued to see strong pricing dynamics, according to Forest Data Network's pricing information. In the Driftless North region in the southwest region of the state, sawlog averages reached nearly $1,700 per thousand board feet (MBF) in 2018, up from around $1,550 the year before. In 2008, the region's average was about the same at $1,534/MBF. To see prices in your region of the state, see FDN's pricing reports here.

As with other species, the value can be determined on a tree-by-tree basis, which can be especially true for black walnut. In one recent sale near Beloit, an owner conducted a sale process in the hopes of getting $100,000 in value, but ended up selling over $200,000 for 48 walnut trees, said Manfred Mielke, Wisconsin chapter president of the Walnut Council.

“The number one reason prices have stayed steady or even risen is because of the export market,” Mielke said, explaining that Korea was the primary end market for the recent Beloit area sale. “If you have good quality walnut it’ll drive a sale, but even if it’s lousy quality walnut it can drive a sale.”

The fine grain pattern in the wood makes it popular for use in high-end furniture, interior finishes, gunstocks and car interiors. Wisconsin walnut is also used for decorative- type applications like jewelry boxes and instrument trim, according to the Wisconsin DNR. The most valuable tree in the Beloit sale was $17,000 for one 38-inch tree, said Mielke.

"It can be the most bang for your buck for your forestry investment," explained Wells. "There are a lot of people who want to grow and manage high-quality black walnut."

Thousand cankers disease not developing in Wisconsin walnut as feared

In an industry where new diseases and infestations can have severe impacts on forests that can be an important part of owners' financial and recreational lives, many are welcoming positive news regarding Thousand Cankers Disease, a fungal disease that was believed to be related to fungus and the walnut twig beetle.

Initial fears of walnut damage in places like Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio led to action from a number of other states, including Wisconsin, to determine if similar damage could end up affecting those black walnut populations. So far, research has been positive.

"Research is ongoing, but we believe this is hopefully not an insect disease thing," said Michael Hillstrom, a forest health specialist with the DNR. "The view is that this is a positive development."

Some of the latest research indicates that a driver of the fungus that damages the trees is actually more related to drought, leading to weakened trees that then attract the beetles and the associated fungi, Hillstrom said.

Despite trapping, tracking and surveying for a number of years, neither the walnut twig beetle or the fungus was ever found in Wisconsin. The state also instituted an external quarantine preventing of movement into the state from states where Thousand Cankers Disease was located, unless it comes with a certificate signed by a pest control agent showing it has been treated or otherwise approved.

"We're staying diligent on issues with walnut, but it does look like something far less dramatic than emerald ash borer or oak wilt," said Hillstrom, citing two infestations that can have a fatal impact on trees.

Glen Stanosz, a leading professor on tree diseases at the UW-Madison's Forest & Wildlife Ecology program agrees.

"It's certainly not lived up to the expectation of wiping out black walnut in some places," said Stanosz.

"Initially there were some dramatic reports of mortality, but that has tapered off as weather patterns have changed," Hillstrom said.

Despite the ongoing economic strength of the species, direct seeding and seedling populations have been on the decline as there's been a sharp rise in seedling prices, and more of the black walnut resource is naturally regenerating.

According to DNR information, state nurseries saw a significant drop-off in black walnut seedling distribution over the past 10 years, selling nearly 200,000 in 2007 down to over 79,000 in 2018. Black walnut seedling prices have also jumped, rising $495 cost per thousand seedling to $737 today. Some of the price increase was related to the closure of a Hayward nursery, and a need for revenues to support remaining nursery staff, said Jeremiah Auer, a forest regeneration specialist with the DNR.

Seedlings grown at the state nurseries are used for reforestation and conservation plantings on private, industrial, and state/county forest lands. Over the past 15 years, there has also been significant walnut plantation growth through direct seeding, especially on larger DNR projects in the southwest, according to DNR officials.

Meanwhile, despite the drop in seedling sales, the resource has continued to grow significantly in Wisconsin. According to USDA Forest Inventory data, growing stock volume of the species has jumped nearly six fold since 1983, rising to 124 million cubic feet, or about 0.6% of the statewide timber volume. The state's trees are also aging and becoming larger, data shows.

The resource has also been able to withstand issues that have arisen in other area states like Indiana and Tennessee, where Thousand Cankers Disease has been detected. Wisconsin is under quarantine, but so far state forestry experts feel confident the resource may avoid damage that has been found in other parts of the country (see sidebar).

"The species has really stayed pretty strong," Wells said. "There just aren't many other trees like that with that naturally dark colored wood that are revered by us and other cultures."

Pictures from a recent walnut harvest in southern Wisconsin (Picture: John Nielsen of the Walnut Council)
Pictures from a recent walnut harvest in southern Wisconsin (Picture: John Nielsen of the Walnut Council)

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