Picture a corn field in your mind. Row after row of tall, perfectly-grown stalks waiting to be harvested.
Now, where was the farm you pictured?
It’s ok if the farm you pictured was in Kansas, Nebraska or Iowa.
While corn is typically associated with the Midwest and plains states, H.B. Thompson Farms in Whitakers, Edgecombe County, is growing corn right here in North Carolina for popcorn.
H.B Thompson Farms is a fifth-generation family farm with heritage dating all the way back to a land grant in 1851. Today, the farm primarily produces small grains like triticale (a rye wheat hybrid) and oats.
A few years ago, Harold Thompson, proprietor of H.B. Thompson Farms, was listening to a radio show when inspiration struck.
“I was listening to a national radio show and they got to talking about popcorn and corn on the cob and I had no idea what they were talking about,” Thompson said. “I did a little research and thought it sounded really cool. And here we are now, three years into growing corn for popcorn.”
He reached out to his county agent and they connected him with a popcorn seed salesman. The two spoke and Thompson learned that farmers in Western North Carolina were growing shelled corn for other uses, but that no one nearby was growing corn that would be harvested whole on the cob for popcorn.
Soon enough, Thompson got to work.
“I looked around at the Triangle and the Triad and there really wasn’t anybody growing the type of corn I’m now growing,” Thompson said. “There was an unlimited market, it just required work and a little bit of research but we decided to give it a try.”
The first year went well enough and the team at H.B. Thompson farms refined the process, bringing an “old-fashioned corn snapper” down from Pennsylvania instead of picking it by hand, building a cooled storage unit and a system for grading the corn on its visual appeal since it is sold whole on the cob.
“We’re trying to sell an aesthetically pleasing ear of corn,” Thompson said. “On some ears, the machine will knock some grains out and that would be fine if we were shelling it, but we’re not so we go through and grade all the corn. We’re going to try to sell the shelled corn so it doesn’t go to waste but about 60 percent of the crop makes the grade that would look good in a package and be something you want to buy.”
After coming to the Got to Be NC Festival as a visitor for years, Thompson is bringing his product to this year’s edition as an exhibitor for the first time. There will be popcorn corn available for sampling and purchase. Each package comes with two ears of corn, which are placed whole in a microwave bag and popped.
“We tell people all the time what we’re growing and they always say, ‘What, you’re growing corn for popcorn in North Carolina? I’ve never heard of that,’” Thompson said. “We figured (participating in the festival ) would be good exposure for what we’re doing. I’ve always been impressed with all the vendors I’ve seen through the years and I wanted to be a part of it.
“I want people to know that this is locally-grown NC popcorn. We’d just love for people to try it and support North Carolina agriculture.”
You can learn more about H.B. Thompson Farms by visiting www.hbthompsonfarms.com/ or by attending the Got To Be NC Festival at the NC State Fairgrounds May 19-21.