A crowd of conference attendees, hungry for a mid-afternoon snack, began to form around the small cluster of tables in the center of the Charleston Civic Center's Great Hall on Feb. 26.
They watched and waited as the staccato of erupting kernels slowed. Then, seven different batches of freshly popped popcorn, sourced from five local farms, were divided into samples. It was time for an eager audience to taste and vote for their favorite as part of the Great West Virginia J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works Pop-Off.
"It's a fun little event," said Lisa Lagana, program coordinator for the WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center.
It's also designed to draw attention to the small but growing Mountain State popcorn industry.
Participants in this year's competition included Rhonda Dortsch, of Bluestone Mountain Farm in Hinton; Johnny Spangler of Spangler's Greenhouse in Lindside; Frank and Liz Abruzzino of Hawthorne Valley Farms in Clarksburg; Bobb Tabb of Town & Country Nursery in Charles Town; and Jacob Beavers of Tucker County FFA in Hambleton.
They are at the forefront of a burgeoning West Virginia small farm trend that is far more profitable than most of us would guess.
Tom McConnell, program leader for the WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center, said that the number of popcorn producers is surprisingly small, and he isn't quite sure why.
"When you go to a farmers' market, anything you can trade for your customer's money is a good idea," McConnell said. "For small farmers, why not? Popcorn costs about half of what it takes to grow field corn, and you sell it by the pound," rather than by the bushel, "that's the key."
McConnell added that popcorn has several benefits for farmers: it can be done on a smaller scale, unlike field corn it can air dry and it can be marketed during the winter months when a lot of other products can't.
"We've really concentrated on season extension," McConnell said. "We extend the growing season to extend the marketing season. This has a shelf life longer than most produce. I don't understand why people don't take advantage of it. If they're on a small farm, they need to take a look at this."
Most of this year's contestants submitted one popcorn variety each. Tabb entered three: white, yellow and rainbow.
"The rainbow is a cross pollination of yellow, white, blue and red," Tabb said. "The kernels will vary (in size) once popped. Everything pops white except the yellow. The hull will be the same color."
Last year's winner, David and Barbara Miller, of Diamond Mountain Longhorns in Tunnelton, didn't enter this year. The rest, aside from Beavers, were returning competitors, hoping that their popcorn would get the top prize this time around.
Each of the entries had a corresponding letter to conceal its identity, and no flavoring was added, only some J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works popcorn salt.
"We've tried them all," Inetta Fluharty said, motioning to two others, Carmen Fullmer and Evan Frees, who each had cups and bags in hand.
"The hulls weren't as hard in general," said Frees.
Dortsch's sample (noted as "B'' during the Pop-Off), he said, "had a lot of flavor. It was surprising."
Fuller said Tabb's rainbow entry "was more on the sweet side."
They thought they'd made their minds up, until they tried Tabb's white popcorn entry, which "threw a monkey wrench in all that," said Fluharty.
Clearly, all popcorns are not created equal. They each voted for different winners.
In the end, Dortch's Grandpa Sherman Hulless Popcorn came out on top.
Dortch already sells plenty of other products like poultry, eggs, honey goat's milk soaps, dent and flint corn. But popcorn has been a family tradition for decades — so growing and selling kernels that pop up to a nice, fluffy finish was a logical transition.
"My father is the reason why this all started," Dortch said. "He kept the family tradition of popcorn getting together every Sunday night. It was the only thing he could cook, and boy, he was proud of it."
Dortch's great grandparents grew and shelled popcorn as did her dad (Grandpa Sherman), aunt and brother, but she's the first to grow it and sell it commercially. She sells her popcorn for $3 per pound up to 50 pounds.
"It stores well, It's easier to get started, and there's a market for a lot of different weights," Dortch said. "It's a crop that kids can get involved in. It's more manageable for people. As a single farmer, I'm always trying to spread out my work load."
Tabb, who is also the Senior Manager at the W.Va. Department of Agriculture, has been producing popcorn for 15 years. Though it's only a small part of his farm — about five to eight of his 84 acres — Tabb is able to grow several different varieties.
"I grow it all," he said. "It's all non-GMO. I do a lot of hybrids but only through breeding. What I grow the most of is yellow, white and mushroom. I rotate the crops around. It's about supply and demand, about finding your markets. You can derive more dollars per acre than you can traditional crops."
There are challenges, Tabb said, like harvesting, storage, and defending against damage.
"The biggest challenge with growing is white tailed deer," he said. "There's also insects and weather to consider. Over time I've learned how to protect the crop from varmints and elements. It's not a perishable crop. The more perishable crop, the less time you have to market. It's about having a plan and how you're going to store it."
Tabb said that while many people have moved away from popping popcorn themselves, he thinks that the interest is coming back due to the emphasis on locally grown food.
"It's starting to grow around the state. People like knowing where their food comes from," he said. "This is a West Virginia grown product. If you pop it fresh, and eat it right then it tastes different from others."