Playing it by ear: Minnesota couple loving novelty popcorn business
PERLEY, Minn. — It's been a popping good corn year on the Colten and Katie Gehring farm near Perley, Minn. — a hobby enterprise they call "Farmers Gold Popcorn."
Gehring farms commercially by day, and she's a florist in Fargo, but in their spare time they're heating up an on-the-cob popcorn business.
The 2017 season was their first year at the Red River Market, a farmers market which runs from 10 a.m to 2 p.m., Saturdays through the end of October in Fargo. Their products also are at gift stores in Fargo.
"We're selling it as a novelty — not just eating popcorn, but the experience of seeing how it grows, how it pops and sharing that with your family," Katie says. A typical package is $7 for three cobs from Farmers Gold, or $3 for a single cob,
"A lot of people don't realize that popcorn grows on a cob," Katie says. "It seems crazy, but it's a question we get every single week. It's not just kids that are wowed by it, but adults too."
Gehrings' farming story is unusual for the region — a fabric woven in strands of history in Montana, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Colten 27, grew up in Bozeman, Mont. His father was a UPS driver. His mother was a baker who had a side business of growing fresh flowers for farmers markets. His grandparents live at Parkston, S.D., just south of Mitchell, S.D.
When Colten was in about the third grade he visited the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell.
"One of the samples we got was a corn-on-the-cob you could throw in the microwave and pop," Colten remembers. "I thought that was sweet."
In 2008, Colten graduated high school and spent a year at Montana State University in Bozeman but decided college wasn't his thing. In September 2009, Colten asked a cousin's husband, Brian Hest, at Perley, Minn., whether he would hire an inexperienced hand to help on his Red River Valley farm.
"I expected just a fall of harvest work. It turned out I loved it," Gehring says.
San Diego rural
Meanwhile, in 2013, Katie Kasten, moved to Bozeman, Mont.
Katie and a younger sister grew up on a hobby farm that raised dairy goats, veal calves and chickens in a rural area near San Diego. She studied horticulture at Maricosa College, a two-year college.
Katie moved to Bozeman, Mont., to become a florist. That's where she met Colten's mother, who introduced her to her son, who started visiting more frequently from Minnesota. The two were married in June 2016.
At home in Perley, the Gehrings had a two-acre garden inside of the flood dike on their farm yard. Colten thought back to that experience in Mitchell and decided he'd try growing a new crop — popcorn.
"We had about four rows, 50-feet long, and it actually turned out just fine. We figured, what the heck, we should use it for our wedding favors," he says. They packaged the full cobs, and wedding guests loved them and encouraged them to get in the business.
"The next year we put in a couple of acres, and that's where we're at today," Colten says. They sold 1,500 package units from last year's crop, which was reduced by hail storms. They hope to do 2,000 units this year.
Even two acres is a lot of popcorn to pick by hand. They had a crew in on Oct. 14 but could only harvest half of it before they were stopped by rain. It's a challenge working things in, as Katie works as a florist at Dalbol Flowers and Gifts in Fargo, and Colten is busy with soybean harvest.
Last year the Gehrings bought an old Minneapolis Moline corn picker.
"We tried to make it work for picking cobs because we had two acres to pick," he says. They're trying to make some tweaks to make it work but for the moment are relying on the generosity of friends and relatives to hand-pick.
The Gehrings acknowledge popcorn isn't anything new, but they are a special category as the only regional producer of on-the-cob popcorn.
"Grown locally in Minnesota, and packaged? It's hard to find," Colten says. They'll never go to "loose kernels" and try to compete with the grocery store brands.
It's a different product and process.
"We hand-pick and try to keep the weeds down," he says. "We have to be a little more gentle" than conventional farming.
Speaking of conventional farming, Colten says he's thrilled to be in the industry. Four years ago he started renting a few acres and now has about 600 acres, including some from Hest along with two other landowners.
"I love doing this," he says. "We'll see where it goes."
Life is good, with their Rottweiler, Sadie, with the flower and corn business and their hobby.
"We're kind of playing it by ear," he says.
Farmers Gold Popcorn also is available at the Vintage Point LLP gift shop on 25th Street in Fargo, at the The Red Silo on Broadway and Nest Coffee + Kitchen in Perham, Minn., and Ms. Bumblebee's Flowers and Gifts in Parkston, S.D. They do some online sales through their website, farmersgoldpopcorn.com, especially at Christmastime.