Orwell farm gets corn harvest to pop: Stonewood expands popcorn production

ORWELL — Best known for its holiday turkeys and year-round frozen turkey sausage, Stonewood Farm is experimenting with something new.
“We’ve been fooling around with it off and on for 10 years on a small scale, just for home use,” said Paul Stone. “Two, three years ago we got serious about it and grew an acre and started selling it at the (Middlebury Natural Foods) Co-op. So now we’re up to 3.5 acres this year.”
Paul and Francis Stone started Stonewood Farm in 1976. After dairying for a number of years, they switched to turkeys. In 2009, son Peter Stone and his wife, Siegrid Mertens, took over the business.
But the popcorn sideline is all “Grandpa” Stone’s, as the farm’s founder is affectionately identified on the Stonewood Farm website.
“He started growing more and more and he couldn’t give it away,” said Peter Stone. “So he had to figure out what to do with it. That’s how it got started.”
Paul Stone has been selling his popcorn at the natural foods coops in Middlebury and Montpelier. The popcorn is delivered in 25-pound bags, and the two stores sell it in their bulk departments. Each co-op sells about 50 pounds of Stonewood popcorn a week, said Stone.
This May, he won a $13,750 grant from the Working Lands Enterprise Fund to expand the business. The grant will be used to expand the farm’s ability to grow, process and package popcorn and to help the farm reach more wholesale markets.
This summer, Stone bought a corn planter. He plans to buy a corn sheller and another machine that cleans the popcorn (removing the chaff and what Stone calls “the small stuff”). He also plans to put in a new farm building for processing and packaging the popcorn. He’s been using a tractor-trailer and other farm buildings as available for part of his popcorn enterprise.
Stone, a former Vermont commissioner of agriculture, noted that as a crop popcorn presents a number of challenges. It needs a longer growing season than the kind of corn Vermont farmers grow to feed their cattle and other livestock. Corn for silage is normally harvested in September, said Stone, but popcorn has to stand in the field to dry down as long as possible and is harvested in October. The kernels have to be mature or they won’t pop (whereas less-mature feed corn can still be made into silage). If popcorn gets harvested too wet, it can mold and the crop is spoiled.
And in the same way that fine cheeses require affinage (the right temperature, humidity and treatment for storing and ripening), harvested popcorn kernels need to be dried properly. Stone has devised ingenious mini “corn cribs” for this purpose. Each is built on a wooden pallet, about four foot square, on top of which is a mesh “corn drying cage” that goes about five feet high. Using the palette, these corn-drying units can be easily moved around with a skid steer or a palette jack.
Even processing and packing the dried popcorn creates its own unique challenges.
“When you shell it, it’s like little marbles. It rolls and it goes all over the place,” said Stone.
Stone said he didn’t know of any other Vermont farms growing popcorn as a commercial crop. And he said that as a commercial crop “it’s likely better suited to a climate that has a longer growing season.” He noted that most popcorn in the United States comes from Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.
Asked how he sees popcorn fitting in to the family business, Stone replied: “I’d call it a small sideline. This here is not going to replace turkeys.”
Stonewood is one of the largest turkey growers in Vermont.
Although Stone expanded this summer from one to three-and-a-half acres of popcorn, the wet weather and gray skies Addison County farmers have contended with all summer will likely reduce his yield by two-thirds.
“This is a very wet year for corn,” said Stone, as he stands looking out at this summer’s less-than-promising corn patch. “About one-third of it looks good. About one-third of it looks so so. And about one-third of it doesn’t look like anything I would want to brag about.”
Stone’s original plan in expanding from one to three-and-a-half acres was to focus this upcoming winter on selling bulk popcorn to more natural food coops throughout Vermont. With what could be a drastically reduced harvest, he’s now going to wait and see.
When asked how the Stonewood popcorn tastes, Stone pops some up right on the spot.
“It tastes great,” he says.
And it does.
Then he jokes, “You’re asking the right person.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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