The Tiny But Mighty Popcorn King

Gene Mealhow, aka “Farmer Gene,” has found success with an ancient heirloom seed, a focus on soil health and a commitment to marketing what he grows.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Justin Hayworth

In popcorn parlance, “old maids” are kernels that fail to pop. Devoted fans of the Tiny But Mighty brand learn about that and other kernels of popped corn wisdom when Gene Mealhow promotes his product as “Farmer Gene” in Whole Foods stores and at events across the country.

Gene and Lynn Mealhow

Gene and Lynn Mealhow

While his family left farming in 1989 during the farm crisis, Mealhow got back into production agriculture in 1990. The fourth-generation farmer bought 33 acres of the family’s land—all that he could afford—near Shellsburg, Iowa.

“I wanted to farm,” he says, walking into the former farrowing house where Lynn, his wife, and Mark Kluber, his brother-in-law, are packaging corn. Gene’s sister-in-law, Lori Kluber, and niece, Ashley Arp, also work for the family popcorn business. The Mealhows’ four sons, with careers in other fields, love to come home and help out when they can, too.

Trying something different

“If I was going to be a successful farmer on my small acreage, I knew I had to do something different,” Mealhow continues, taking his leave of packing and walking to the cornfield in front of his home. At first, he says, he tried growing tofu beans and herbs. “I went cold turkey not using chemicals and failed miserably,” he admits, chuckling. So he consulted with Midwestern BioAg, a firm that consults with farmers about “biologically based” growing methods, focusing on soil nutrients and soil balancing.

Ultimately, in 1992, Mealhow signed on as a consultant with the company while simultaneously trying to farm. “I taught farmers how to farm with less chemicals or no chemicals,” he says, “and how to farm the biology in the soil versus applying things to make the crops grow.” By the time he quit consulting and went back to farming full time in 2003, he was traveling to four states and had nearly 100 clients.

The popcorn itself comes from a seed almost lost to history.

The popcorn itself comes from a seed almost lost to history.

One nearby client was Richard Kelty, who was growing a small heirloom popcorn that produced multiple stalks on one plant, with full-size ears growing only 3 inches long. The seed came from Kelty’s great-great-grandfather who, the story goes, either found the seed in the wild or traded for it with Native Americans in the 1800s.

Kelty was struggling to grow this unique, open-pollinated popcorn. “Through soil balancing and changing the levels of nutrients needed in the soil, I was able to help Richard greatly improve the yields of the popcorn and lower the waste,” explains Mealhow. Open-pollinated seeds are pollinated naturally, not hybridized, and remain stable year after year. “An open-pollinated seed has the genetics inside of it,” he adds.

“In the beginning, we got three to eight ears from one corn plant on average,” Mealhow says. “These days, the average is closer to six to 12 ears per plant.”

The business grows

Mealhow and Kelty increased Kelty’s yield from 400 to 1,000 pounds per acre, using hand selection of plants to improve traits and a natural fertilizer that Mealhow created. When Kelty retired, Mealhow realized the tiny popcorn was perfect for his small acreage and bought the business.

Small Farms processing facilities

Lynn Mealhow and Mark Kluber help staff the company’s on-farm processing facilities.

In addition to the 33-acre homestead Mealhow cultivates, “We have four contract farmers,” he says, all within a 75-mile radius, which allows Mealhow to be on hand during planting and harvest. The other farmers have been guided by Mealhow to use the same biological farming concepts he advised as a consultant.

“A biological farmer,” he explains, “farms the organisms in the soil to create the nutrients and the quality in the plants. They farm the living entities in the soil.” Advantages, according to Mealhow, include decreased weed pressures, which means less need for chemicals and, indirectly, less reliance on fertilizer. “You cut your fertilizer in half or even down to a fourth because Mother Nature is supplying the nutrients now,” he says.

On the other hand, such an approach to farming can be more labor-intensive, allowing fewer acres to be cultivated per pair of hands. If fewer acres is farmed, economies of scale are diminished.

For his part, Mealhow accepts the trade-off and says a biological farmer must change “understanding and attitude” about how soils work, as well as how to nurture the system to produce nutrients. “You have an entirely new education and development of the techniques,” he says.

As with just about any farm operation, however, harvest season is 24/7. Mealhow and crew operate in a tight window to get the crop into bins to dry, aiming to bring the corn in around 18% moisture. “The cleaners work better at that moisture,” he says, explaining that before packaging the corn, he uses a variety of tools, including screens, a gravity table, a polisher and air streams. “We dry it all with air, slow and easy, and get it down to about 13% moisture.” Heat isn’t used because it might crack the pericarp (outer shell), which would later prevent the necessary steam buildup that pops the corn.

Breaking into Whole Foods

“We usually mail anywhere from five to 15 packages a day directly from here at the farm to our customers,” Mealhow says. Customers can also contact the farm to schedule tours, and locals often stop by to pick up their popcorn orders. “But that’s a small part of the business,” he says.

The crux of Tiny But Mighty’s sales comes from retail outlets, such as Whole Foods Market, Fareway and Hy-Vee stores. Mealhow chuckles as he recalls his first attempt to break into Whole Foods Market stores. “I sent all these [popcorn] samples to eight of the regions,” he says. “We got back eight of the nicest rejection letters you ever saw.”

Tiny But Mighty hopes to sell between 2 million and 3 million pounds of popcorn this year.

Tiny But Mighty hopes to sell between 2 million and 3 million pounds of popcorn this year.

A determined Mealhow began calling stores and reached a Chicago-based Whole Foods team leader. “He said, ‘Send me three cases and I’ll put it on the shelf. If it sells, I’ll order more. If it doesn’t, you’ve got to buy it back.’” Mealhow agreed.

Ten days later, the grocer had sold out and wanted more of the product. Mealhow told him that not only would he personally deliver the product, he offered to do in-store promotion as well.

“I won’t leave until I sell five cases,” he told the Chicago buyer. The farmer also offered to leave five cases and return every two weeks to sell more. This “personal touch” gambit proved to be a winner. “It just went boom, boom, boom in 15 stores in Chicago,” Mealhow crows.

From there, word of mouth spread, eventually leading to a meeting with the chain’s representatives. Now Tiny But Mighty Popcorn is sold in all 11 Whole Foods regions. “We’re moving corn every day,” he says. Mealhow’s business now has 18 part-time and full-time positions.

“Most big popcorn companies are selling 10 million pounds of popcorn a year,” he says. “Our goal is to hit between 2 million to 3 million pounds this year. So in the world of popcorn, we are teeny tiny.” He adds, “But we’re growing.”