Local farmers diversify with acres of popcorn
Farmers Jeff Anderson and Tyler Tindall were looking for another niche market when they decided to grow popcorn.
As they contemplated this new crop they realized that it isn’t your typical DeKalb County crop, like field corn, but has some similarities. They became familiar with the popcorn crop two years ago when they custom harvested some acres for another local farmer.
“It’s a small niche market that is contract based,” said Jeff Anderson. “The supplier-buyer monitors our popcorn closely, setting timelines for planting and harvest.”
“We had a drop dead date of May 20 to get the popcorn planted, to comply with the contract,” explained Tyler Tindall. “Then, we harvested the crop the end of October.”
Last year Jeff and Tyler teamed up to raise 465 acres of yellow organic popcorn for the Weaver Company, based in Van Buren, Indiana.
Their popcorn acres were located throughout the county, as far north as the Tindall Farm in Kirkland and south of the Anderson Farm in Malta.
Quality control is paramount with popcorn, say the two farmers. “If quality is compromised we get docked,” stated Tyler. But they didn’t, based on carefully monitoring fields.
Some of the crop challenges which they encountered their first year were weather-related, with a dry spring and dry late summer. Then wind storms in August compromised stalk quality causing some of the corn to go down.
Like their other organic crops, they used a row-crop cultivator to control weeds in between popcorn rows during the summer months. Foxtail and ragweed were some of their toughest weeds to get rid of. For fertilizer they used chicken litter and yard waste compost.
“The nice thing about growing popcorn is we follow similar organic practices and we can use our same farm equipment,” said Jeff. While harvesting the popcorn they had to be careful not to damage the kernels. “Popcorn is sensitive to kernel scratches so we have to handle it carefully.”
Another farm factor for popcorn is harvesting the crop at the ideal moisture – around 15-16 percent. And it has to dry naturally in the field. “You can’t run the popcorn through a grain dryer (like field corn) or it would pop!” noted Jeff.
Jeff and Tyler indicated the 2021 harvest was a slow one for them based on pockets of downed corn in their fields which required them to operate the combine at a lower speed.
But in the end they had respectable yields, averaging 4,800 pounds per acre. Popcorn yields are measured by the pound, not the bushel, like field corn. Typically popcorn produces less than half the yield of field corn – for them it equated to about 86 bushels per acre.
“It was a really good year for popcorn, based on timely rains,” explained Jeff. The farmers were surprised with the popcorn yields and pleased with meeting their contract obligations with Weaver. They called it a “profitable and successful venture.”
Jeff and Tyler grew over two million pounds of popcorn in 2021.
Their popcorn is sold by the Weaver company under various labels and its own Pop Weaver label at retail stores and movie theaters throughout the country. Most notably is the Organic Weaver Gold popcorn, which could be some of their popcorn grown in DeKalb County.
Both of their families enjoy eating popcorn with simply butter and salt. Jeff and his wife, Katherine, and three children reside in North Aurora. Tyler and his wife, Kristen, and three children live in Sycamore.
Having a successful first year, the two farmers intend to increase their popcorn acres in 2022.
Two guys partner up to grow organic crops
Growing crops organically is practically all Jeff Anderson has ever known. “My father transitioned to organic in 1998. I wanted to continue these practices and grow our farm for generations to come,” said Jeff.
Jeff grew up helping his father with the grain and cattle farm but left the Malta farm for college and a corporate job. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees from NIU and became a CPA.
When Jeff’s father, Larry, exited the cattle market and transitioned from conventional to organic crops it was a way to continue to farm the 450 family-owned acres in a niche market.
In 2012, Jeff returned to the family farm to work alongside his dad who then retired two years later. Since then Jeff, a fifth generation farmer, has expanded the farming operation to 2,100 acres of organic crops and still maintains his corporate job.
Jeff and Tyler Tindall became farming partners five years ago having similar interests in organic crops and deep roots in their centennial family farms.
Tyler grew up on the Tindall Farm in rural Kirkland helping his dad, Rich, grow traditional row crops. He was more interested in sports in his younger years and not so much farming. He earned a bachelor’s degree from NIU and then worked for a local pallet company.
At the age of 30, Tyler had a change of heart and returned to farm with his father in 2014. He farmed with him until Rich’s retirement in 2016. At that point Tyler, a 6th generation farmer, had to decide if he could continue farming the 350 family-owned acres or not.
“I wanted to keep our farm going but there wasn’t enough acres to farm full time,” said Tyler. “Transitioning to organic farming and partnering with Jeff was a good route for me to go.”
Tyler left his pallet job to farm full time. In just a few years he has grown his farm acreage to 1,000 acres.
Since 2016, Tyler and Jeff have shared labor and equipment and together the two make farm management decisions for their combined 3,100 acres.
“Equipment and labor is easier for us over more acres. It’s easier together than on our own,” said Jeff.
They both maintain that farming organically requires extra work than traditional farming. They use a row-crop cultivator, rotary hoe, crop rotation, field walkers and timing to manage weeds. Organic farming requires more field time/passes per acre.
The two farmers also keep meticulous records in order to maintain their organic certification and be in compliance with the USDA’s National Organic Program.
“You have to be passionate about growing crops organically,” claimed Jeff. “Yes, there is a yield drag between organic and traditional. And organic doesn’t have the seed and fertility options like conventional farming, but more options are being developed.”
They grow organic popcorn, field corn, soybeans, oats, and wheat, along with cover crops like peas, oats and radishes.
“We continue to look at new crops to grow on the farm, diversify and be successful,” said Jeff. “We started with food grade organic crops and now have some feed grain crops.”
What helps Jeff, 41, and Tyler, 37, is the networking they do with other farmers – there are about 15 organic farmers in the county. “We discuss what works and doesn’t work and help each other as needed,” said Jeff.
As for the farming duo, “We are a good balance,” commented Tyler. “We make better decisions