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Popped culture

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia might not seem like the most obvious place to recognize National Popcorn Day, which happens to fall this year on Jan. 19 -- today.

After all, the amount of land used for growing popcorn here is counted in single and sometimes double digits -- 7 acres here, 12 acres there. The total here is so small that no one seems inclined to track it. Not the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Not the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Not even the nationwide Popcorn Board.

Perhaps it doesn't seem worth the effort when there are tens of thousands of acres of golden kernels popping up in Midwestern states like Nebraska, Indiana and Kentucky.

But a handful of West Virginia growers have found the soil here is fertile and the climate almost perfect for producing popcorn -- and growing revenue, for themselves and for enthusiastic popcorn retailers across the state.

Growing profits

"Every year we plant more and more, thinking we'll have enough to make it to the next year's harvest, and every year the business grows so much that it absorbs that, and we end up pretty much running out by about Christmas," said Johnny Spangler during a phone interview from the Spangler Family Farm in Monroe County, which has been in his family since the late 1800s.

At the Peanut Shoppe in downtown Charleston, owner Adam Kimble said that, ironically, popcorn is his most profitable product.

"When you're buying a bag of popcorn, the most money I've got in it is the bag," he said, adding, "I go through a couple thousand bags of butter popcorn every three weeks."

From the Eastern Panhandle, Bob Tabb proudly described the mind-boggling mix of popcorn he grows on his family farm with so much pride it's almost like he's talking about cherished grandchildren.

"The variety that pops so round -- what we call the mushroom variety -- that's the type to choose for things like the kettle corn and the caramel-topped corn," he said. "This year I did about 10 acres, everything from the little minis -- what people call a mini Indian corn -- to the mushroom type, to butterfly, which is what you get in the movie theaters."

A senior manager with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and owner of the Town & Country Nursery in Kearneysville, Tabb's eyes light up when he mentions the different kinds of ears he's planted each spring and carefully nurtured through harvest season, including a crossbreed he calls rainbow corn.

And don't get him started on the popcorn-on-the-cob. Once the husk is snapped off, it goes into a paper bag and then into the microwave, where it pops right off the cob. For an added thrill, skip the bag and watch the explosions take place right before your eyes.

"You don't have to be a kid to be enthralled by the process of popcorn popping right off the cob," he grinned.

For Tabb and others, the excitement is understandable: Most years, they say, there's enough profit that the red, white, blue -- and yes, golden -- kernels that pop up from the ground could just hold the key to greater economic viability for generations of Mountain State farmers large and small in the years to come.

Adding value

There are scavengers -- mostly deer and raccoons. There are complications, like drying the kernels to just the right amount of moisture -- somewhere around 13 percent. There's also competition from other states as well as the microwave varieties that are easy to pick up at your local grocery store.

And some years are just better than others.

"The one criterion to being a farmer is, you have to be an optimist. Pessimists don't plant seeds," Tabb said.

"I plant seeds on two things: faith and hope. I have faith that God will look favorably upon my crops, and hope that if we have a bad year, the next year will be better."

But growers said when they sell directly to consumers through farmers markets and cooperatives, sometimes popping the corn themselves and adding in different flavors, the profits begin to soar. It's a question of wholesale prices versus retail dollars, and with a shelf life that's much longer than fresh produce, popcorn is tailor made for that.

"I get $3 per ear for that pop-on-the-cob, but if I sell sweet corn, I have to sell you 12 ears and maybe get only $5. So if you start figuring on money per square foot rather than money per acre, the money's a whole lot better by doing a niche-type thing," Spangler said.

"We do a great business with our kettle corn," he added.

The kettle corn crunch

In fact, kettle corn is becoming its own thriving niche industry in the state, even for those who don't grow their own kernels.

For Dale Scragg and his wife, who opened Scragglepop Kettle Corn in Huntington in 2008, it's been an answer to prayer.

"We were looking for a way to make some extra money, and we stumbled onto this business and we thought to ourselves, 'Well, this might make some extra money.' So we started doing this and next thing you know, it just got crazy busy," he said.

So much so that they've added partners and expanded the business, serving up bags of caramel-colored corn at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena and Marshall University sporting events.

"It's like the Starbucks of Huntington," he laughed. They're serving in Charleston for the very first time this weekend, at the West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show at the Charleston Civic Center.

To the east, Grant Coleman and his wife launched Wheeling Feeling Kettle Korn two years ago.

The business has taken off, he said, even though he's been popped, so to speak, with some tough lessons along the way.

"We do have things popping out of the kettle. Most of the corn stays in, but you do have molten sugar popping out and, you know, it's really hot," he said with a voice of experience.

His 80-quart stainless-steel kettle has 100,000 Btu -- most home stoves have around 7,000 per burner. It cooks at roughly 500 degrees.

"I should mention, you have to stir the popcorn really vigorously. You almost have to go crazy stirring it around and making sure all the sugar coats it, so I've had burns on my arms, my face, I've even had burns on my eyeballs," he said.

These days, Coleman wears long sleeves, welding gloves and safety glasses, even during the heat of summer.

A way of life

Traditionally, popcorn has been thought of as a treat reserved for kids and carnivals.

Today it's all grown up and sophisticated, with the addition of gourmet flavors and the kind of nutrition data most snack foods would kill for.

But its real value may lie in something farmers and entrepreneurs alike are looking for in West Virginia: opportunity, right here at home, in bite-size pieces.

"Popcorn is one of those things we can do on [a smaller] scale, and that's what a lot of the entrepreneurs, part-time farmers and people that have maybe 5 to 10 acres of tillable land can do," said Tabb.

"People are looking to generate more revenue per acre, and this is a way to do that."

It's also a way, says Spangler, to preserve a cherished but challenged trade.

"Small family farms are vanishing from Monroe County, but I want this way of life to continue, and small farms to flourish," he said. "And this protects our way of life somehow."

Reach Maria Young at maria.young@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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