If you look through old books about farming in the mountains of Western North Carolina, you won’t find much mention of popcorn. If a farmer had enough flat land to grow corn, they were more likely to grow varieties that were suited for cornmeal and grits instead of popping. But these days, the crunch of popcorn can be heard in the hills of Ashe County.
Amanda Gentry and Wendy Painter are trying something new with their business, Mountain Popcorn Girls. For the past four years, they’ve grown popcorn on Gentry’s fifth generation farm.
“For a long time, we grew the corn, we picked the corn, we shucked the corn, we shelled the corn. It was very physically intensive,” Gentry says.
They were also in the kitchen popping the corn, combining it with flavors like caramel and sea salt, and selling it online and at farmers markets. At first, some neighbors raised their eyebrows when they saw popcorn growing on the Gentry farm.
“People like to drop by and see what you’re doing and people have been so intrigued over popcorn, saying you can’t grow popcorn! I have a neighbor who said you can’t grow popcorn in July because it starts popping in the field you’re really gonna be in trouble,” Gentry says.
They chose a variety of corn called Dynamite that’s bred for popping on the stovetop, and partnered with a local farmer to help them grow more of it. Brian Chatham of High Mountain Farms agreed to plant and harvest their corn with equipment from his large-scale grain farm.
Gentry says these kinds of farming partnerships are actually pretty common where she lives. “Well I’m a fifth generation Ashe County girl and that’s just what Ashe County does. We connect and help each other with farming.”
But she hasn’t been a farmer all her life. Gentry has a master’s degree in human development and psychological counseling, and had a private practice for many years. Wendy Painter is an artist and worked in the nonprofit world. She says it was an appreciation for local food that brought them together to start the business.
“I’ve always had a love of really healthy, great food and always wanted to know where it came from. Although my family hasn’t farmed for a long time, I was influenced by my grandmother and my great-grandmother who farmed and always had huge gardens and always had great food and my parents did, too. We ate out of a huge garden every year. Over time I lived in larger places and disconnected from where my food came from, so it was really great to have that reconnect in Ashe County,” Painter says.
Their popcorn is creating connections, too. Although popcorn is not a traditional crop In Western North Carolina, it does bring back memories for some people they meet.
“It’s amazing when they have that popcorn in their mouth and they go, ‘It’s just like when grandma used to pop it on the stove.’ And we love that reaction because there is a distinct taste that kind of brings you back to some roots. It’s not microwave popcorn, it’s not the fake butter, it’s ‘Wow. That is like I remember.’ And then comes the story. They’ll say, ‘My grandfather used to grow popcorn.’ They taste it and then they want to tell their story,” Gentry says.
Painter says she wants to maintain those personal relationships, even as they expand the business. “It’s been such a great connector and I don’t think we envisioned how many people had popcorn stories. And also how many people don’t know about popcorn. It’s been such an opportunity to educate people,” she says.
Now that they have help planting and harvesting the corn, Gentry says they’ll have more time to expand the business in other ways, like agritourism. “We are hoping to create a farm store this year so that folks can come in and see the process of what we’re doing, go out into the popcorn field, pop some popcorn, play corn hole, those kinds of activities that really bring people in,” Gentry says.
Find more information about Mountain Popcorn Girls and hundreds of other farm businesses in ASAP’s online Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: March 19, 2018