By Brenda Wade Schmidt, Argus Leader
When a Wentworth, S.D., couple ended up with too much popcorn last year - roughly a million pounds - they hopped on an opportunity.
They started popping it.
Gaylen and Shirley Backus looked at the supply as a way to pump up the newer retail and online portion of their business, Gaylen's Homegrown Popcorn. In farming, it's called "value added," turning your crop into consumer products -- in this case caramel corn, popcorn balls and bagged popped corn with flavors that include cinnamon, birthday cake, caramel apple and bacon cheddar.
So far, the idea is popular with customers.
"We can hardly keep up with this part of it," says Gaylen Backus, who grows the popcorn along with corn and soybeans on the Lake County family farm about 40 miles north of Sioux Falls. "This is something we can do on our own and develop another market for us."
Backus says he wishes he would have started selling the popped corn products earlier. But the need to use up what amounted to $250,000 worth of popcorn stored in a bin was a good motivator. The excess was the result of a surplus of popcorn across the country and was valued at about 25 cents a pound, he says.
The Argus Leader reports that Gaylen's Homegrown Popcorn retail products are created and made by Gaylen's wife, Shirley, and their son, Tyler, in a garage the family turned into a kitchen and shipping center. This time of year is busy both with online gift basket sales and sales at various events where they display the treats, some made from Shirley Backus' own recipes.
"The secret of good caramel corn is real butter," Shirley Backus says. For years, she has taken caramel corn to various parties and events they were invited to and always got good comments. She tweaked that recipe for the larger batches she makes in the company kitchen.
Each batch is popped, coated, packaged and boxed for shipping. Gaylen's also sells popcorn kernels packaged in hand-sewn bags with its own logo printed on each one.
The family popcorn business started in a more traditional farming approach when Gaylen Backus, 61, planted popcorn in 1996, growing the crop for someone else. After two years, he was ready to start his own popcorn company, shipping semi-truck loads to numerous states.
The large-scale operation of the popcorn business still is his biggest project, and countless semis come and go from the farm. When the crop is harvested, Backus takes it through a cleaner that looks for the perfect size and color of kernels. Popcorn that makes the cut is bagged and sold.
While he is not the only South Dakotan in the popcorn business, there are far fewer specialty growers than traditional crop farmers. But agriculture development, including finding new markets for farm products, is growing in South Dakota, says Ty Eschenbaum, ag development representative with the state Department of Agriculture.
"The benefits are so huge, not only to the producers themselves, but also the local area," he says of product development. "There are a lot of opportunities out there for folks like them that are willing to try something new."
The entrepreneurial spirit, like that of the Backuses, has always been important in South Dakota, Eschenbaum says.
The locally grown popcorn has developed a tourism market as well as an agriculture business. Gaylen's Homegrown Popcorn is sold at the Corn Palace in Mitchell in a souvenir cloth bag, giving the company a niche as a South Dakota Made product.
It's a hit, says Dale Odegaard, manager of the enterprise division for the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the Corn Palace gift shop, other stores in the downtown area and an online business selling popcorn and other South Dakota products.
"His popcorn is excellent. We get orders from all over the country all the time," he says. "It's been very successful for us."
The busiest season is summer when the shops go through thousands of 2-pound bags of kernels. The stores also have been selling the newer retail products including the caramel corn, cheese corn and ranch-flavored popcorn.
The gift shops want to sell products made in the state as much as possible, as long as the prices can stay competitive, Odegaard says. "He's an entrepreneur," he says of Gaylen Backus, adding that the Corn Palace gift shops have been pleased with the farm's products and service.
One of the most popular novelty products that comes from the Backus farm is an ear of popcorn - cut specifically to the company specifications - that comes with a microwave popping bag. In the microwave, the kernels pop off the ear for an individual bag of corn.
The farm sells 25,000 of those ears a year.
While the company reach includes states on both coasts and in between, sometimes customers show up at the farm looking to buy the Backuses' products. One day, a Pennsylvania family found the farm after seeing the company online and turning off Interstate 29 for a little side trip. They wanted to buy something made in South Dakota, Gaylen said.
Gaylen's popcorn is sold in County Fair Foods stores and in Sunshine in the store's own labeled bag. The national company Prime Time Popcorn also uses the Backuses' popcorn.
While Shirley and Tyler Backus are building the retail side of the family business, they also help with harvest when needed. Gaylen Backus is primarily in charge of the farming.
"I thought I'd get into popcorn because I have all the equipment for raising corn," he said. But popcorn requires its own cleaning equipment in a separate building on the farm.
Gaylen also has learned the particulars of a specialty crop.
He plants two varieties, yellow butterfly and yellow mushroom, because the butterfly is better for typical popcorn, but the mushroom is a sturdier product that works best for caramel corn or products that are coated, he says.
Popcorn - which pops because a bit of moisture inside each kernel expands when it is heated - also has to be harvested under good conditions. "If you pick it too early and dry it down, it could be too hully," he says.
Gaylen is able to store the popcorn in a bin and blow unheated air on it to take some moisture off the crop. Popcorn will last longer if it is taken care of properly, he says.
Backus is both a farmer and an inventor, figuring out ways to make his business better and finding new markets for the crops he grows. He calls himself a "frustrated farmer" and admits he got a little bored raising typical South Dakota crops. That's one reason he turned to popcorn, a business he hopes to continue to grow and to pass on to the next generation on the farm. He had farmed traditional crops for more than 20 years before planting popcorn.
"If we can just do something no one else is doing, that's what we're after," he says.
His son, Tyler, is beginning to understand the concept and sees a possible future in popcorn, as well.
"It is a pretty cool thing to be selling and be known as 'the popcorn people,' " he says.