Gene Mealhow went organic before organic was cool.
It was 1989 and the farm crisis, with its severe drop in farmland value, was threatening the family farm operation his father and uncle had built. They decided to retire, and Mealhow made a bold decision.
He told his wife, then pregnant with their fourth son, that they were going to try to farm without chemicals.
He started with vegetables and tofu beans.
“I was called the weed farmer of Benton County,” Mealhow said.
Mealhow was working as a soil consultant in the 1990s when he met Richard Kelty, who was trying to grow popcorn near Urbana. They worked together to improve the crop, and when Kelty retired in 1999, he sold the business, Tiny But Mighty Popcorn, to Mealhow.
The smaller-kernel popcorn, which leaves almost no hull when it pops, already was in Fareway stores. Mealhow went to Hy-Vee stores across the state and convinced several store managers to carry his product.
Whole Foods made sense, too, so the family sent neatly packaged popcorn and information to all eight regions of the chain.
“We got eight of the most wonderful rejection letters you ever saw,” Mealhow said.
After some phone calls to Whole Foods stores in the Chicago area, one store manager in Willowbrook agreed to put three cases on his shelves for a month. The store manager called back in 10 days asking for more because they had sold out.
“My son and I were going to Chicago about every other weekend doing demos,” Mealhow said. “One store just referred us to the next, until we got all of the Chicago area.”
His organic popcorn is now in most Hy-Vee and Fareway stores, along with about 40 Whole Foods Stores in the Midwest and East Coast. Mealhow recently signed a deal with Romeoville, Ill.-based KeHE, a national distributor, which gives the product access to nine warehouses and 30,000 grocery chains in the United States.
Last week, a farmer from Japan visited Mealhow’s farm. They talked about fertility, seed selection and weed suppression.
“It was kind of a real exchange,” Mealhow said. “He invited me over to his place.”
In addition to the national distribution developments, Tiny But Mighty has launched a ready-to-eat product.
Although Mealhow has made popcorn his life, he and his wife still enjoy the snack almost every night.
“All my neighbors think I’m nuts,” Mealhow said with a chuckle. “They’re tolerant of me now, though, because they do like eating the popcorn.”