Different corn kernels have different destinies. Many ears wind up back on the farm, feeding livestock, but most think of the sweet variety, slathered in butter, tasting of the summer sun.
Fourth-generation Johnston County farmer Jason Barbour of Four Oaks knows feed corn and sweet corn, but last year, he added popcorn, falling into a production contract while out shopping one night.
He planted eight acres of popcorn, one of the few Johnston County farmers to deal with the crop. His buyer is Popcorn Haven in Carolina Premium Outlets in Smithfield, the contract reminiscent of farming a few decades back, when the buying cycle had a tight local center.
“My wife and I had been going to the Carolina Pottery UPS box to send something off, and another farmer I knew came up to me and said to go see the popcorn man,” Barbour said. “(That farmer) doesn’t grow corn and said the store wanted to buy its popcorn from a North Carolina farmer.”
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The popcorn guy is Robert Miller, who runs the Popcorn Haven shop. Miller had been buying his kernels from Sysco and other large food-distribution companies, but he had been on the lookout for North Carolina popcorn for local appeal.
Barbour said he didn’t have much experience in popcorn but was willing to give it a shot.
“I didn’t know anything about popcorn; I know dent corn and sweet corn,” he said. “I had never grown no popcorn, but I’ll try anything one time, so I figured we’ll see how it goes. And it kind of worked out.”
This year will be Barbour’s second popcorn harvest, upping last year’s eight acres to 14 this year because of demand from Miller. It’s still a new thing for Barbour, but he has the hang of it, and the crop holds its own among his 20 acres of tobacco, 20 of sweet potatoes, 100 of soy beans and 25 of dent corn for feeding.
Barbour said growing popcorn is different from other fresh corns. He buys his seeds from the Midwest and said the corn, which is very starchy, keeps some moisture as it dries.
“So it pops,” Barbour explained.
Miller said Barbour is the only popcorn grower he’s found in Johnston County. He said he started looking for a local farmer as a way to support the farm-to-table trend that’s taken hold of the food world over the past decade.
“It makes sense to buy local, to support local farmers,” Miller said. “It caught my eye when we started two years ago and I saw that ‘Got to be N.C.’ marketing sign.”
Miller is confident the thousands of miles he’s cut off his kernels’ travels translates in their taste, making for a better popcorn.
“I’ll tell you this, it may seem weird, but fresh popcorn tastes better,” Miller said. “Number one, it pops a lot quicker and we have more control over our moisture content. For whatever reason, compared to the stuff I get from the Midwest, you can tell a difference side by side.”
Barbour recently won an AgVentures grant from the state, which will enable him to keep up with his nearly doubled popcorn contract. With the money he’ll purchase a popcorn cleaner.
The grant program, Barbour said, is to fill the void left by the decline of tobacco in North Carolina, a way for farmers to diversify and move on from the lucrative golden leaf.
“It’s for farmers who want to pursue other crops and give diversity to their crops, instead of it just being tobacco that you can grow,” Barbour said. “The grant helps farmers get some of the supplies or machinery needed to start other products.”
Agriculture has defined Johnston County for as long as people have lived within its borders, with family farms down just about every paved and gravel road east and west of Interstate 95. The industry is big in North Carolina, with the state leading the nation in sweet potatoes and tobacco, but Barbour thinks North Carolina still has a ways to go to ensure its farming prominence.
“We need to push North Carolina agriculture; we’re still small in the agriculture field overall,” Barbour said. “We really need to push our products and be really big on North Carolina agriculture.”