Black Squirrel Farms is finding success processing black walnuts – with a little help from Keuka College students and an alumna
From Keuka College, From left, Hailey Vanorden ’23, Emily Reynolds ’22, and Colleen Ulrich ’23 make up the staff at Black Squirrel Farms.
KEUKA PARK, N.Y.— Tucked among the wineries that dot the western shore of Seneca Lake is a unique farming operation.
Four-year-old Black Squirrel Farms is the only licensed food manufacturing facility handling black walnuts in New York state.
It processes tens of thousands of pounds of in-shell black walnuts per year.
It manages a regional black walnut collection program that links the productive capability of more than 150 local black walnut growers.
It offers guided black walnut tours and operates its own Airbnb.
And it’s overseen exclusively by a Keuka College alumna and students.
“We’ve been working with Keuka College students since the fall of 2019,” said Emily Reynolds, Black Squirrel’s operations manager. “We’ve had at least one KC student throughout the entire time since then.”
Emily, a 2022 Keuka College graduate who majored in Management with a marketing concentration, was one of those students. She came aboard on a part-time basis in the fall of her senior year, then stayed on full-time upon graduation. After initially developing products and marketing campaigns as product manager, she assumed her new role in August and now runs day-to-day operations at the approximately 8-acre farm on the west side of Route 14 just north of Penn Yan.
Assisting her for much of the past year have been Keuka College Occupational Therapy graduate students – and roommates – Colleen Ulrich ’23 and Hailey Vanorden ’23.
Colleen said they were immediately intrigued when the openings were advertised.
“We’re going to get paid to crack walnuts?” she thought. “Sure!”
It’s a little more complicated than that. Depending on the season, the three-person crew might collect nuts from the property’s 80 some-odd walnut trees, remove the green outer shell (a process known as hulling), dry the walnuts, or crack them open and separate the nuts for use in a variety of product.
Customers can order New York Wild or New York Maple Glazed Black Walnuts from the operation’s website. Perhaps more surprisingly: the product line includes hand-crafted soaps, barbecue smoking chips, and an anti-grip additive for paints to prevent slipping on surfaces like outdoor decks.
“We use every single aspect of the walnut,” said Emily. “We’re not wasting any part. It opens people’s eyes. They think, ‘Wow, I didn’t think you could do anything like that with walnuts.’”
Many of those nuts come from local property owners – in fact, Black Squirrel collected some 38,000 pounds of black walnuts this past fall. (One hundred pounds of walnuts will yield three to four pounds of useable product once processing is complete.)
Aside from overseeing a product line that runs from soap to nuts, Emily attends area farmers markets, books the on-site Airbnb, leads Colleen and Hailey in processing the walnuts and maintaining the property, and collaborates with owner and General Manager Sara Tyler, who works remotely from her home in Texas, on overall operations.
“I’m very fortunate that Sara has really been able to work with me remotely,” she said.
The Keuka College part-timers say they feel fortunate, too. Jobs at the walnut farm are so popular, that more than a dozen College students applied.
“You’d tell a friend you applied,” recalled Hailey, “and they’d say, ‘You, too!?’”
The operation’s Keuka College connection is no accident. Emily said owner Sara grew up in this area and is well aware of the College and the mettle of its students.
“She immediately reached out to the College,” Emily said.
They’ve been reaching out ever since.
“We understand that students are busy but need to work,” said Emily. “We’ve created an open, flexible work environment and schedule that keeps students interested. It’s a super unique experience.”
It certainly wasn’t an experience Emily saw coming.
“I graduated from Keuka College thinking I was going to go into social media marketing, and here I am a year and a half later and I’ve found a new passion for agriculture and restoration,” she said. “Having general business management experience, I’ve been able to take that and carry it and develop into where we are now.”
Emily said the farm’s growth in its fourth year has been encouraging.
“This year really seems to be the year things are kind of taking off,” she said at the end of last year. “We’re proving this is a real business – we can do this! That doesn’t mean we didn’t think we would get there, but it’s really neat to see it come together. I’ve definitely surprised myself with how things have gone.”