Tiny But Mighty is basically what corn used to look like before modern plant breeding techniques turned it into the big, high-yielding, ultra-robust stuff grown commercially today, and ‘Farmer Gene’ Mealhow – the farmer/soil consultant nurturing the ‘lemon yellow’ tiny kernels – reckons he might be the only person in the US growing it.
“There are other varieties out there with small kernels – although not as small as this – but the uniqueness is that it doesn’t grow on one stalk but on bush with multiple stalks with multiple ears, and it’s open pollinated, not a hybrid corn, so I can enhance the product via seed selection. I’ve also developed some new varieties as there is a huge genetic base in it."
I’ve been a farmer all my life and I’ve never seen a plant like this
He adds: “I was working as a soil consultant and I met a guy [Richard Kelty] growing an heirloom popcorn variety [which Kelty started planting in the 1970s after discovering some seeds his family had kept in a fruit jar], that was really unusual [each ear of corn is only about 3 inches when fully grown].
“I’ve been a farmer all my life and I’ve never seen a plant like this. We know it dates back to the 1800s, and it hasn’t been changed or hybridized, and it was almost lost. Since I've been growing this seed, my record is 36 ears on one plant.
“However, it had very low yields, so I helped him get from 400lbs/acre to 1,000lbs/acre [by selecting for standability and other desired traits, and switching the fertilizer regime], and he was really pleased with that. This year we are at almost 3,000lb/acre, but it's still far lower that the 5,000-8,000lb/acres your get with regular popcorn.
“The business started growing, but he was in his early 80s and he wanted to sell, which depressed me as I really enjoyed working with him and it's an amazing seed. I said I’d help him find a buyer, but finally, I asked him to sell me the business, and we moved it here [Shellsburg, Iowa] in 1999.”
It tastes completely different to regular popcorn
Tiny But Mighty popcorn – which comes in three varieties: bags for you to pop at home, ready-to-eat (pre-popped), and microwaveable – tastes different from regular popcorn varieties (butterfly, semi-butterfly, and mushroom-style popcorn - which is easiest to coat), he says.
However, its other very distinctive feature is that its hull virtually disintegrates when it’s popped, which means it’s easier to chew and digest, and you “don’t get all the bits stuck in your teeth”, he adds.
“TinyButMighty fits into the butterfly category, but it’s denser, it fills you up faster and has a nutty corn taste. When people first try our popcorn, one of the things they notice right away is the flavor. It’s the way corn should taste; it tastes completely different to regular popcorn.”
We want people to actually taste our popcorn
As a result, unlike some varieties, which manufacturers literally smother in butter, caramel, or other coatings to mask the fact that the popcorn doesn’t really taste of anything, Tiny But Mighty ready-to-eat varieties have a lighter coating, he says.
“You see some popcorns where the popcorn is really the carrier for whatever flavor they are putting on it, not the other way around. We want people to actually taste our popcorn.”
So where does he see the biggest growth opportunities in the market?
“All of our products are doing well," says Mealhow. "We’re in all 50 states, we’re national with UNFI and the product is now in chains such as Sprouts and Whole Foods nationally as well as independent stores. Amazon also ships a lot of our products; they saw the volumes we were moving and they came to us. We’re even in TJ Maxx!
“What I call the PPEs – professional popcorn eaters – like to pop their own; the ready-to-eat bags are doing really well; and the microwave popcorn – which I didn’t want to do originally, is also selling really well [despite the fact that microwave popcorn market overall has been steadily declining].”
Bang on trend
From a marketing perspective, taste – coupled with the novelty factor – is key, he says.
But the 'heirloom' aspect is a also a huge selling point for the TBM brand, and has definitely helped it secure shelf space at retailers who are being bombarded with calls from new popcorn companies keen to cash in on the category’s explosive recent success, he says.
“Talk to anyone that’s ever eaten an heirloom tomato. It tastes unbelievably better.
"I’m not saying hybridization is bad, but you can sacrifice flavor. People also want to know who grows their products, and the whole locally-grown trend is huge.”
Consumers also like the fact that while Tiny But Mighty popcorn is not (yet) certified USDA organic, the Mealhows are working towards this, and are very transparent about their farming practices on the website (click HERE), he says.
“The trouble is that it’s so weak and spindly, if grass comes up it will take it over.”
So what are the next steps?
“We’re growing at the rate of 1-2million pounds a year, we’d like to be a 5-6million pound company in the next three-to-five years, which is a lot of growth for us," says Mealhow. "But remember it’s a billion pound industry, so in the scheme of things we are still a very small player.”