and Tylan Calcagni (her partner in both business and life)
formally launched their business, Walden Hill, in December
of that year. Milikowsky graduated the next spring. Finally, the
whole idea was coming back to where it started – the trees.
By the end of 2015, Milikowsky estimated, they had gathered
nearly 100,000 pounds of acorns.
Acorns are everywhere – finding them isn’t a problem. But
gathering 100,000 pounds of them is a lot of work. Milikowsky
and Calcagni gathered the majority of the acorns themselves.
(Indeed, they seem unable to stop. As I walked through the
forest during our interview, they kept stooping to fill their
pockets.) They placed ads to let people know that they’d buy
acorns. (Full disclosure: one of those ads was posted in Northern
Woodlands.) They offered to gather acorns from landowners
who didn’t want them, or to buy acorns from landowners that
gathered themselves. They also partnered with public parks and
college campuses, which often need acorns removed for safety
and liability reasons.
For many suburban homeowners, cleaning the acorns out of
their yards is an annual chore. Some seemed surprised that there
was a market for their acorns. When Milikowsky visited one
acorn-seller who had heard about the enterprise, he quipped,
“Acorn Girl exists! We thought you were a myth.” Another man
invented ingenious acorn-gathering devices to gather thousands
of pounds of them.
Here was a glint of the same enthusiasm and pride with
which woodlot owners talked about maple sugaring. And
there were hints that acorn-finished pigs were already having
a positive impact on the conservation of native oaks. “I
probably would have cut down those trees,” one landowner told
Milikowsky, “if you hadn’t come along.”
Just as the forests of New England are held by a patchwork
of owners, it may take a patchwork of approaches to conserve
them. Selling bags of acorns will never be as lucrative for
landowners as selling timber. But if Millikowsky is correct,
it may not need to be. As with maple syrup, a small, regular
source of income from acorns may add one more incentive for
Northeastern landowners to continue their long tradition of
stewardship for their land.
Benjamin Lord is a writer and high school science teacher. He lives in southern Vermont.
Today, Milikowsky and Calcagni’s woodlot is an odd sight. Large
oak trees spread their boughs over an open, grassy forest floor.
Beneath them, pinned to the ground by stakes, are nets of the
kind used in shellfish farming. Here, they are acorn-catchers.
Calcagni told me some of the flaws in what seemed to be a
supremely clever idea. The acorns are too heavy. The nets tear.
They can’t gather from them as efficiently as they’d like. He tells
me about improvements that he’s considering. It strikes me that
his attitude about nets is a microcosm for the whole project
– idealism and ingenuity in equal measure.
At the time of this writing, Walden Hill is feeding acorns to
more than 100 pigs and selling pork to restaurants and markets
in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. I asked if they