The idea first popped up over happy hour at Delta Meat Market in Cleveland, John Mark Looney recalls.
“We were looking at all the products on the shelves. I’ve got a friend who’s got an entrepreneurial streak, and he asked me, ‘You ever grow popcorn?’”
The young farmer’s response came quick, “No, nobody really grows popcorn around here.” Then his pal, Delta Dairy frozen treats shop owner Matty Bengloff, scooped up a nudge.
“Well, you ought to try it,” he told Looney.
It’s an idea that blossomed, like a kernel under fire, into Crop to Pop Popcorn, a Mississippi-grown snack and field-to-fingers treat that comes straight from Six Mile Farms, LLC.
But Looney had to warm to the idea first.
One Popping Idea
That was back in 2016. Though skeptical, Looney ordered some seed and planted it on about an acre of the family farm he works with his dad, Mark Looney, in the Mississippi Delta community of Tribbett.
“It was basically a big garden the first year, but it was enough to get 50 bushes or so,” he says of that initial popcorn crop. “With our equipment, it took all of 15 minutes to plant it.
“We harvested it, and we put in an old pot we had laying around the shop, and heated it up with an acetylene cutting torch, and it started popping.
“I figured I had to do something with it then.” Friends echoed his own assessment: It was tasty.
Six Mile Farms grows a variety of yellow butterfly popcorn, which produces a shape and texture similar to that used in movie theater and microwave popcorn.
Selling it came next, in two-pound bags that smack of straight-from-the-farm simplicity and trust. Cotton Row Creative’s Laura Beth Lott, a friend, designed it — a packaging win that Looney credits with boosting sales.
After putting Crop to Pop Popcorn in a few stores and starting a social media site, “I was really surprised at how much attention I got,” Looney says. “That’s when we decided we really had to be serious about it,” and he sought advice from other Mississippi producers.
Crop to Pop Popcorn is finding a niche in specialty shops and a home in snack bowls from the Gulf Coast to Franklin, Tennessee, and as far west as Tyler, Texas.
To bolster his brand even further, Looney joined Genuine Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s branding program highlighting products made, grown and crafted in the state as well as The Table at Eat Y’all, the entry level Producer Membership program.
They bought the old Tribbett Grocery Store and renovated it, with a popcorn processing facility in the back, and an office and a kitchen up front, for shooting recipe videos and hosting small private dinners. “We want to do more than just process and ship popcorn out of it.”
Looney has now planted some of the mushroom popcorn variety, with a more ball-shaped kernel, as an experiment. “We’re going to try to start marketing that to little popcorn shops that pop their own popcorn, and maybe get it in some bags.” He’s also working on some other exciting collaborations with other ingredient producers in the region.
Big Flavors Popping
Popping the corn is just the start when it comes to Crop to Pop’s farm-to-table fun. Chef Stephen Kruger at Barrelhouse in Jackson served it for a special event, using caramel corn as a garnish for a caramel apple pie cheesecake dessert, Looney says. Chef Jason Goodenough at Carrollton Market in New Orleans, “a big fan,” has served Crop to Pop as a bar snack. And, for a Valentine’s Day event in Leland, the chef ground up white truffles for a popcorn topping. “He whipped out that bag of white truffles and said, ‘That’s, like, $300 worth of truffles, and I’m going to put it on 30 cents worth of popcorn,’” Looney recalls, a bit in awe. “It was really good.”
That luxurious treat inspired Looney to pick up black truffle salt at Walmart, run it through a coffee grinder to pulverize it, and sprinkle the powder on his own popped corn. That turned into a favorite popcorn topping in the VIP tent at the Mighty Mississippi Music Festival. “Everybody loved that truffle salt.” Italian seasoning, ground fine with salt, is another fave.
“That’s the great thing about popcorn. It is a bland medium where you can convey sweet flavors, salty flavors and savory — really, whatever you want to do with it,” Looney says.
He can’t resist sharing one more idea. Make kettle corn by adding sugar and a bit of salt right before the popcorn starts to pop and, soon as it comes out of the pot, sprinkle on curry powder for a holiday boost.
“If you put that in a Ziploc bag and take it to some friends’ house, when you open that bag up, it smells like Christmastime hitting you in the face.”
Editor’s Note: This profile was written by Sherry Lucas, a Jackson, Mississippi culinary writer with an appetite for iconic foods. This story was produced in partnership with Genuine Mississippi.