ROCKWELL CITY - It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. When Tom Decker and his family were trying to find the most tender, flavorful popcorn to grow and market through their own label, they popped hundreds of varieties before settling on the premium white popcorn that defines their Farmers Best brand.
"Our popcorn is known for its thin hull, allowing the popcorn to pop easier and get stuck in your teeth less," said Decker, 51, a third-generation Calhoun County farmer who raises popcorn to diversify his row-crop operation. "Consumers today not only want a quality product, but they want to know where their food comes from, so I'm glad we can offer a locally-grown product."
Decker brings a wealth of popcorn production know-how to the process. He has been growing yellow popcorn for a large snack company for 12 years, and his family began marketing its own private-label four years ago.
-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Ton Decker converted part of his machine shed for his popcorn business. Here he uses a machine to seal the plastic on a popcorn bag.
Farmers Best popcorn is available in microwave packages (which feature soybean oil rather than palm oil) and bulk bags at grocery stores from Algona to Des Moines.
The product sells extremely well at Jubilee Foods in Rockwell City, which has carried the product for several years. "My customers like the fact that it's local, and it's a good product," said Gary Nobbe, store owner. "It's hard to keep it on the shelf because it sells so well."
Selling by the pound
Raising popcorn comes with its own set of challenges. Popcorn is a more fragile crop than field corn, and there are no Roundup Ready varieties, Decker said, who plants 300 to 400 acres of popcorn each year. The popcorn is planted after the field corn is planted, he said. Decker also manages a seed business from his farm south of Rockwell City.
Popcorn is sold by the pound, rather than by the bushel, and approximately 65 pounds of popcorn equals one bushel. "In my mind, a popcorn yield of 5,000 to 5,500 pounds per acre is like 200 bushels of corn," Decker said.
Grain moisture levels are critical when it comes to harvesting popcorn. "About 13.5 to 14 percent is where you want the moisture to be," said Decker, who won't start harvesting the crop until it gets down to 15 percent moisture.
The Decker family's involvement with the crop doesn't end when the harvest is over. Marketing Farmers Best microwave popcorn and bulk popcorn involves the whole family, who help with in-store demos and special events, like home and garden shows.
"I like how we can work together as a family," said Megan Decker, 10, who enjoys promoting Farmers Best with her father, her mother, Diane Decker, and her sister, Katelyn Decker, 14.
There's a big learning curve with direct marketing, Tom Decker said, who has celebrated many small victories along the way, like learning how to acquire a bar code for his products and getting Farmers Best accepted into Hy-Vee's distribution centers.
While it's challenging to compete against the large snack food companies and their extensive marketing budgets, the Deckers now have Farmers Best in a number of outlets, including many grocery stores across the Midwest and Whole Foods in West Des Moines.
Business is poppin'
This has allowed Farmers Best to gain a wide client base. When executives of a Vermont food company picked up Farmers Best popcorn during a trip to Iowa, they were so impressed with the product that they contacted the Deckers for more information.
The Vermont company now uses Farmers Best popcorn in its ready-to-eat popcorn, which is available in herb, hot chocolate and maple flavors.
The Deckers also market popcorn online at www.farmersbestpopcorn.com. In addition, customers including NEW Cooperative have worked with Farmers Best to purchase bags of microwave popcorn personalized with the client's logo to distribute as gifts.
Decker enjoys being involved in the whole cycle, from production to marketing, and he's excited about what the future might hold for Farmers Best.
"This enterprise is giving our daughters first-hand experience with entrepreneurship.
"If they want to work in agriculture someday, the popcorn business can offer them opportunities."