John Mark Looney has been farming full-time with his father on Six Mile Farms in Tribbett, Miss., since graduating from Mississippi State University in 2008, but until last year, popcorn was just something he ate at the movie theater. “My father grew rice on our farm for 30 years, but we let the rice go and went with soybeans and corn until last year when a friend in the food service industry asked if I’d ever considered growing popcorn,” says Looney. “His request took me by surprise but I thought, why not?”
On March 15 he planted one single acre of a variety called “Butterfly” on 38-inch twin rows and harvested it the second week of August with his combine equipped with a draper header because the ears of the mature popcorn plants were so small a regular corn header would not work. He managed the crop like regular field corn except for the Roundup. “There are no GMO popcorn varieties, so Roundup wasn’t an option when it came to weed control,” says Looney.
The planting seed looks exactly like the uncooked popcorn you would buy at the store to use in your popcorn popper at home. Looney took a handful of the 70 bushels of harvested popcorn and dropped them into a metal bucket, fired up an acetylene torch and applied the heat. “It didn’t take long for the first kernels to pop into the familiar round shape, as opposed to the mushroom or wide open shaped popcorn that is used mostly for making caramel corn balls,” says Looney.
During the short growing season, the Looneys scouted worms lurking on a few of the growing stands of popcorn, but they never reached a threshold level where any type of control was warranted. That changed after harvest when maize weevils started arriving. “The worst part was trying to keep those weevils from feasting on the popcorn once we got it in the grain cart,” says Looney. “We ended up treating it just like we would treat rice or corn in a grain bin.”
Marketing Crop to Pop
Looney has an undergraduate degree in agronomy and a Masters in ag business. While at Mississippi State he also participated in the National Agri-Marketing Association’s (NAMA) student chapter. The team-based marketing experience he gained during his time in NAMA gave him some real-time marketing prowess. “Our team marketed a product we called Catfish Crisp for Simmons Catfish in Yazoo City, Miss., and sweet potato-based deer feed we named Sweet Buck,” says Looney. “On the marketing side, I think I can push this as far as I’d like to push it. It’s just going to take time and effort.”
He is mirroring his marketing efforts after a few other neighboring farming operations in the Delta. The Arant family markets their Delta Blues Rice; the Wagners own Two Brook Farms and market their Mississippi Blue Rice. “They’re several years ahead of me, but I’m patterning my business plan after theirs,” says Looney. “We started selling it at Fratesi’s Grocery in Leland, Delta Meat Market in Cleveland, and the Crown Restaurant in Indianola.”
He has gotten several phone inquiries recently from people who have moved away from the Delta but remembered his unique Crop to Pop packaging and wanted to give it as Christmas gifts. The father/son team is working toward completing a processing line in the old Tribbett Grocery Store that closed back in the '70s. “We bought the building and it was a mess. We had to completely renovate it basically from the ground up,” he says. “We started in July and the hardest part is done, and we’re now working toward getting permits and passing inspections.”
Seventy bushels may not sound like a lot of popcorn to start a business, but try popping more than a handful of popcorn at one time and you will see – a little goes a long way, which is where John Mark Looney hopes to take Crop To Pop.