Lessons Learned: An Interview with Popcorn Grower Gene Mealhow

Tiny But Mighty Popcorn’s founder says farmers don’t need to go to casinos, they make smart bets on what they are raising every day.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Justin Hayworth

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FarmLife: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Gene Mealhow, Tiny But Mighty Popcorn’s founder.

Gene Mealhow, Tiny But Mighty Popcorn’s founder.

Gene Mealhow: My grandfather always told me, “Just because you have the recipe doesn’t mean you can bake the cake.” You need experience.

FL: What have you learned from older farmers?

GM: A good size farm was 500 to 800 acres, and it was basically an ecosystem within itself where the nutrients got recycled and the manure went back into the farm and they rotated their crops. The model we’ve been doing since the industrialization of agriculture is you’ve either got to get big or get out. Now, it is going back because corn prices have dropped. There are a lot of small farmers who want to farm and they’ve got to find different, unique things to grow that can be profitable on a smaller scale.

FL: Name a mistake that taught you a lesson.

GM: I handed over all of my business that I had generated with a large grocery chain to [a broker] and they dropped the ball. The grocery chain asked me, “Why am I not getting your product anymore?” Not following up was one of my biggest mistakes. I figured it cost me about $50,000 in lost revenue. That’s a couple of years of college education.

FL: How have you changed since you were younger?

GM: I live more with the realization that nothing happens fast and that you need to take your time, plan, re-plan, have a plan, and have a back-up plan, instead of going full bore.

FL: Has your lifestyle changed?

GM: I always wanted to farm, but my goal was to be rock star. I was a drummer and I played on the road. Then my kids came along. By the way, today [April 19th] is my wife and my 42nd wedding anniversary. Your kids become your priority, teaching them the tools they need to succeed.

FL: What have you learned about predicting the future?

GM: Farmers do not need to go to casinos. Agriculture is one of the biggest gambles. Let’s say you start farming at the age 20 and you quit at 65. That means you’ve got 45 chances in your lifetime to get it right. All of the farmers that I’ve ever talked to—conventional, natural, biological, organic—they all have a bond to the land.

FL: So how do farmers prepare for unpredictability?

GM: Do whatever you can to minimize the risks involved. [He cites crop insurance, forward marketing and responding to trends.] Back when I got involved in it, organic farming was known as 4-H—a hippy in a holler with a half-acre who is high all the time. Now it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

FL: Has your definition of happiness changed?

GM: Happiness was playing drums in a band. Happiness now is having a great family who loves each other and who has worked together to build something. You need money to be secure, but having a lot of money is not happiness. I get up in the morning, and I walk out and I see nature and I hear the birds sing and I smell the earth. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

FL: What’s something you’d like to learn?

GM: My son is a pilot and he said, ‘Dad, you could fly a plane’ and I am like, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘No, Dad, it’s not that hard.’ Someday I would like to solo an airplane.

FL: What have you learned about life?

GM: Your health or your life can be taken away from you in an instant. Live everyday and enjoy it. Even enjoy the bad things, because you’ll learn something.

My grandson was here and we planted some sweet corn the other day. He’s four years old, so it’s why, why, why, why, why, why. We planted 12 rows and we came in the house and he says, ‘Papa, I can see the corn growing. It’s already growing.’ I said, ‘Well, no, it takes a little bit…’ ‘No, Papa, I can see it. It’s already growing.’ You know how happy that made me?

FL: What advice do you offer FarmLife readers?

GM: Love what you do, work hard at it, and educate yourself to be successful at it.

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