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Dear Mark: Seasons for Nuts and Seeds?

Dear Mark,

Every fall I stock my freezer with nuts and seeds. Obviously I want to buy fresh, not last season’s warehouse leftovers. I am wondering when to expect a fresh supply of popular nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and pine nuts. I know that most pine nuts sold in the US are sourced from China.

Thanks for the great question. Nothing puts the “gatherer” in hunter gatherer like nuts and seeds. Obviously, we include them in many of our MDA recipes [1], and I’m a big fan myself.

Nuts and seeds do indeed have seasons. For seeds, these follow the harvest season of the fruits/flowers they come from. Pumpkins are hitting their peak about now, and sunflowers are at the end of their run, meaning it’s harvest time for them as well. As far as nuts go, harvest seasons vary. We tend to associate nuts with autumn (part of the cornucopia image), and the picture is pretty spot on for most varieties. I’ll include two great resources you can check out. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture [2](CUESA) targets California harvest schedules for the most popular nuts as well as an impressive list of fruits and vegetables. The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources offers a comprehensive guide (PDF) [3] to harvest and storage with detail for even the most avid nut connoisseur.

Based on these resources and others, here’s a quick and dirty estimate of harvest seasons for the most common nuts. (Harvest dates range based on particular variety and region.)

This is obviously the perfect time to stock up on nuts for the year. A great place to look for fresh nuts is an area farmers’ market (the bigger, the better chance of nut offerings). Check out LocalHarvest.org [5] for more information on both farmers’ markets in your region and mail order possibilities for fresh nuts.

A few tips for storage… Buy unshelled whenever you can, or at least look for air tight (even vacuum sealed packaging). Once nuts are shelled, they absorb moisture (especially softer nuts like pecans), alter in taste based on what they’re surrounded by, and even go rancid over time (some just a period of weeks). If you have to buy shelled, make sure they’re as fresh as possible. Store them immediately in an air tight bag in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness. According to the University of California guide, most nuts can be stored for up to a year in cold refrigerated conditions and up to two years in the freezer. (But, again, don’t forget that air sealed bag, or they’ll smell and taste like every leftover from the last 12-24 months.)

As to the issue of pine nuts, they’re more complicated. The U.S. Southwest had a booming pine nut industry several decades ago but has since all but abandoned it because of the availability of cheap imports, among other factors. You can still find occasional areas of the Southwest where pine nuts are still harvested (all wild harvest). Many of these are on Native American reservations, where long held traditions help preserve the interest in harvesting.

Unfortunately, pine nut crops are notoriously inconsistent. If weather conditions are off, you’re looking at a meager harvest. Nonetheless, you can look for pine nuts (generally unshelled) at farmers’ markets and certain reservation areas in the Southwest. Outside of this region, you’re probably going to have to find a good mail order source. If you go mail order, definitely go for unshelled. Shelled pine nuts turn rancid extremely quickly, which makes those import options even more suspect. As with other nuts, store them in an air-tight container in the freezer for maximum freshness.

Thanks again for all your comments and questions, and keep ‘em coming!

steve.wilson [6], paul goyette [7] Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Definitive Guide to the Primal Eating Plan [8]

Smart Fuel: Almonds [9]

10 Ways to Forage in the Modern World [10]