Where the Greenfields Grow

My Family’s Heirloom Popcorn

“One of the greatest days of my life is when I met you.” That is what Farmer Gene Mealhow said to my grandpa Richard Kelty in a Disney channel feature on popcorn farming called “Pass the Plate” that aired in 2014, less than a year before my grandpa passed away. There they stood in front of the camera with their hands clasped in each other’s and both of their faces shining with gratitude. As I re-watch the video, my grandpa looks like he almost always did — his white hair slicked back, wearing a short-sleeved, plaid-blue shirt to match his piercing blue eyes, and a small smirk across his lips. The main difference in his appearance was that he swapped his Key Hi bib overalls for a pair of blue jeans, which was probably his idea of “dressing up” for the camera. Gosh, I miss that man.

The popcorn story goes that my great, great, great grandfather Samuel Kelty or one of his ancestors acquired the tiny popcorn seeds by way of the Native Americans. My ancestors grew the corn and saved the seeds for three more generations on our family farm in Iowa. After graduating from high school, my grandpa Richard married my grandma Rita in 1955, and a few years later he joined the army. Grandpa served our country for twenty years, retiring in 1982. He returned to Iowa and founded K&K Specialty Popcorn (for Kelty and Kramer) with a cousin of his (Kramer). As I have been told, there were only a handful of seeds remaining at the bottom of a Mason jar when Grandpa decided to plant them. His decision to plant those few seeds had an impact on my life that I did not realize until adulthood.

Richard Kelty working in the barn with his popcorn

Photo from Richard and Rita Kelty's personal collection of newspaper clippings

Not that we had permission to do so, but, as a child in the mid-1990s, I remember “playing” in the barn with my cousins and sister. This was where the popcorn seeds were dried, cleaned, sorted, and packaged. It was not so much playing as it was simply observing and soaking in my surroundings. I ran my fingers through the mounds of tiny popcorn seeds and touched the glossy K&K labels. I remember the glitchy, orange light of the lamps hanging from the rafters, the corn dust visibly floating through the air, and the old desk and rotary phone where my grandpa and grandma took the popcorn orders.

Gene Mealhow & Richard Kelty examining the heirloom popcorn in the field

Photo from Richard and Rita Kelty's personal collection of newspaper clippings

Over time, my grandpa strove to improve his yield. He consulted with Gene Mealhow, a farmer and soil expert from Shellsburg, Iowa. Thanks to Gene’s help, K&K Popcorn grew. As my grandparents were aging, they wanted to retire from the popcorn business, so they sold it to Gene and his family. Farmer Gene, as he is affectionately known by his customers, took the popcorn business to new heights and transformed it into something spectacular, rebranding it Tiny But Mighty® Popcorn. I do not know Gene or his family well, but I do know that what he did with my grandpa’s little heirloom popcorn business has made the Kelty family proud. When my grandpa died unexpectedly following an accident in 2015, Gene mourned alongside us. He is a genuinely good person, just like my grandpa was.

When Richard Kelty planted those few popcorn seeds in the 80s, there is no way he ever could have expected to be on national television thirty years later to be thanked by the man who would buy his business. Consider me 100 percent biased, but it is the best popcorn that I have ever tasted. Grandpa and Grandma, I am proud of you and miss you both everyday.

Preserving the Prairie

This fall, I joined the Iowa National Heritage Foundation (INHF), Polk County Conservation, and 100 other volunteers at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt in Polk County, Iowa for a prairie seed harvest by moonlight. We were split up into groups, grabbed buckets, donned headlamps, and waded into the waist-high prairie grasses and flowers as the sun set in front of us.

Harvesting Native Prairie Seeds

Photo by Carly Kelty-Greenfield

My group was tasked with harvesting gray-headed coneflower, Ratibida pinnata. Also commonly known as pinnate prairie coneflower, the native plant can reach up to 4 feet tall. Several flower heads with drooping, yellow petals will grow on each plant. At the end of the growing season, the cone at the center of the flower dries into a head of compressed small, brown-gray seeds (Natural Resources Conservation Service).

Gray-Headed Coneflower

Photo by Carly Kelty-Greenfield

Our group leader showed us how to apply pressure to the cone between our thumb and index finger, gently compelling the cone to release the seeds. If the cone was resistant, it was not quite ready for harvesting. The seeds were tiny, so I felt quite accomplished when the white bottom of my bucket finally disappeared.

Filling a bucket with gray-headed coneflower seeds

Photo by Carly Kelty-Greenfield

At the end of the harvest, the volunteers gathered around a bonfire with INHF and Polk County Conservation leaders where they shared more information about Iowa prairieland. According to the leaders, 200 years ago, 85 percent of Iowa was covered by prairie. Today, it’s less than 0.1 percent. These conservation organizations do such important work in preserving our native land, water, and wildlife. That day, volunteers helped collect more than 75 pounds of native prairie seed, but it will take thousands more to help restore our prairies. What kinds of activities do you like to do to help support conservation efforts in your region?

Harvesting native prairie seeds by moonlight, headlamps, and flashflights

Photo by Carly Kelty-Greenfield

Thanks for the Memories

I spend most of my summer evenings tending to my vegetable garden and flower beds while my husband sits nearby in an Adirondack chair, enjoying an IPA and throwing the Frisbee for our two dogs. The cat slyly hides under my Loraine Sunshine, which is conveniently located under a birdhouse full of chirping fledglings. The undyingly hot sun slips behind our house, and the lightning bugs begin to glow. It is my oasis. Well, almost.

Carlys cat among hostas that came from her grandmothers house

We live next to a busy highway, so Jacob and I can only make conversation in-between the cars and semi-trucks passing by at 55+ miles per hour. We are often literally interrupted mid-sentence by an ear-piercing HONK, a tire hitting a rumble strip, or the surprisingly clear conversations of passing motorcyclists. Despite the less than ideal location, we love our modest home on the one-third acre where our pets are free to roam (within the walls of our privacy fence), where we grow heirloom vegetables to share with family and friends, and where I have planted so many perennials gifted to me by the people that I love.

Coneflowers - A gift to Carly from a friend

When I walk through my flower beds, I gaze upon lovely flowers, but I am also reminded of the people who have supported my gardening endeavors. I see and smell my wonderful mother in the fragrant Scarlet Bee Balm that she gave to me. I say hello to my loving grandmother amongst my thirteen varieties of daylilies transplanted from her garden. I am reminded of my great grandmother when I arrive at the Lily of the Valley, in all its preciousness, which descended from ones planted on her farm decades ago. My cool aunt comes to mind when I admire the wild-looking Husker Red Beardtongue that we dug up together in May. The coneflowers were a gift from my generous 5th grade science teacher, who is also a family friend, when I briefly visited her quaint acreage a couple months ago. Most recently, my Black-Eyed Susans were an addition from a new friend who is in the midst of re-landscaping.

Husker Red Beardtongue  From Carlys Aunts Garden

One of my favorite sentiments is when people plant trees in memoriam of their loved ones who have passed on. A tree is a beautifully enduring reminder of those people as we mourn our loss and move through life without them. On the other hand, my flower beds have become a living tribute to the special people in my life, both alive and gone. It is a daily reminder that my life is rich with good relationships, even beyond my immediate family. I never want to take that for granted.

Many of my perennials have grown so quickly over the past few years and will need to be divided before they emerge and bloom again next spring. I am thoroughly excited to be on the giving end of this plant exchange soon. When it happens, I hope that I am sharing more than just a plant. I hope that we share a visit and create a lasting memory. Do you have plants that came to you from special people? Or a network of friends or family with whom you exchange plants?

A Do-It-Yourself Soil Blocker

Cabin fever is real, and I had it BAD this winter. To combat my restlessness, I devoted my spare time to starting my vegetable seeds indoors. I had the essentials: a heating mat, lights, seeds, and a good recipe for a seed-starting soil blend. I was almost ready to start my seeds and watch them flourish into strong, healthy seedlings, but, this year, I tried something new. I abandoned the peat pots and plastic seed trays in favor of soil blocks. In addition to leaving a smaller ecological footprint, planting seeds in soil blocks reduces shock to the roots when the seedlings are transplanted to the garden.

I shopped around online and found a reasonably priced 2-inch soil blocker, but when my seedlings started outgrowing their 2-inch blocks, I needed to upsize. I found several great options online for 4-inch blockers but found myself sticker-shocked. My only option was to build one myself (read: build one with the help of my husband). Here’s how we did it and how we would improve our next DIY soil blocker:


• Stainless steel sheet metal, 6x18’’
• Galvanized steel bar, at least 12’’ long, 1/8'' thick (Width determined by the diameter of the bolt)
• Bolt with a smooth round head, 7’’+
• 3 nuts & washers
• Rot-resistant, non-chemically treated plywood, at least 4’’x4’’
• 2’’x2’’x2’’ wooden cube
• 4 screws (Length determined by thickness of the plywood)
• Rivet gun and rivets (Length determined by thickness of sheet metal)



Starting with a piece of sheet metal that is 18 inches long and 6 inches wide, bend the sheet metal, so that it forms a cube frame with approximately 4-inch wide sides. (The top and bottom are open.) 




This should leave at least 1 inch of overlap on one side. Pop rivet the overlapping area to the cube from the inside. The frame of the soil blocker has now been created. 



Starting with an 1/8” thick metal bar, at least 8 inches long, bend the two ends, so that they are parallel to each other and 4 inches apart. It should be able to slide down over the frame of the soil blocker.

Next, drill a hole in the center of the bar. The hole should be slightly larger than the bolt, so that the bolt can pass through the hole smoothly.

Cut an approximate 4x4 inch piece of rot-resistant plywood (not chemically green-treated) that will fit inside of the soil blocker. Note that we used a 1-inch thick piece of wood. I would recommend using at least a ½-inch thick piece of wood for strength.

Cut a 2x2x2-inch wooden cube. (This is the size of my starting soil blocks.) 



Now that the wooden pieces are created, you need to drill a hole in the center of the 4x4 inch piece of plywood, so that the bolt can pass through. 



Counterbore the center of the 2x2x2 inch wooden cube.



Insert the bolt through the 4x4 inch piece of plywood, and cover the head of the bolt with the 2x2x2 inch wooden cube. Screw the two wood pieces together to capture the bolt in place. We’ll call this piece the “push plate.” (It was helpful to use a nut and washer to clamp the bolt in place on the plywood during this step.) 



Rivet the metal bar (from steps 3-4) to the soil blocker, so that the bolt and the push plate can travel a full 4 inches from the top of the cube to the bottom of the frame once assembled.

Insert the push plate into the soil blocker frame and the bolt through the hole of the metal bar.

Use the nuts and washers to set the travel limits of the push plate, so that it will not completely slide out of the soil blocker frame.




• The left-over metal bar can be used to create a small handle, which is held in place by 2 nuts.
• Springs can also be added to keep the push block in an “open state” if desired.

What we learned:

• Once tightly packed into the soil blocker, the soil blend slides much more smoothly off the sheet metal than the wood. The wood needs frequent rinsing to avoid the soil sticking to the push plate. Our next DIY soil blocker would likely have a metal push plate instead of a wooden one.
• We underestimated the length of the bolt needed, so we ended up cutting the frame down from 6 inches tall to 4 inches, so that the push plate would extend clear to the bottom of the frame. For a 6-inch tall frame, we suggest a 7-inch long bolt or longer.
• We spent about 60% less on materials than what we would have spent to purchase a manufactured, store-bought 4-inch soil blocker. Our version is not perfect, but it does exactly what we intended, which is to make a big cube of dirt where my 2-inch soil blocks fit in perfectly like a three-dimensional puzzle piece, so that my seedlings have room to grow.


My Grandmother's Heirloom Tomato Pasta Sauce

As a child, I lived as close to my grandparents as one could without living under the same roof. I grew up on a small acreage in rural Iowa next door to my paternal grandparents and across the street from my maternal grandparents. Our proximity meant that I could bake chocolate chip cookies and deliver them to Grandpa Richard whenever the mood struck. It also meant that I could explore Grandma Judy’s flower beds as she taught me their names without the hassle of traveling. Often, I would show up unannounced and wake Grandma Rita from a nap. We would go out to the kitchen table and just talk. Other times, I would sit in Grandpa Larry’s swivel chair and watch him work in the shop.  

Today, out of those four, I have one grandma who is alive and doing well. Grandma Judy is more than just a grandma to me. She is my friend and source of gardening knowledge. She was my “what to do and not to do” guide when I first began gardening on my own. She encouraged me to stick to heirloom varieties, have my soil tested, and to build my own tomato cages. More than just a source of information, she takes the time to teach me important skills, like canning.

Although it is not currently the typical canning season, I enjoy this pasta sauce recipe of hers, especially this time of year when I crave the comfort of pasta. It beats store-bought products because her heirloom tomatoes are more flavorful, homegrown, and canned when they are perfectly ripe. When I asked her where the recipe originated, she said it most likely came from a canning recipe book and was customized to her and Grandpa Larry’s preferences over time.

Grandpa Larry was notorious for throwing ingredients into a pot and taste-testing what he had done while Grandma Judy was behind him trying to take down measurements. Like many recipes that come from anyone’s grandparents, its measurements are not always exact because the recipe evolves over the years and, eventually, becomes something they feel rather than read from a recipe card. I encourage you to save this recipe for later in the year when your own tomatoes are ripe and adjust it to your own taste. In the dead of winter, tasting the food that you grew yourself in your own garden makes all the work involved with canning worth it.

canning jars

Grandma Judy’s Pasta Sauce Recipe

Yield: 14 to 16 quarts


4 large white onions, diced
8 cloves of garlic, diced
1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
3 large bowls/approximately 48 heirloom tomatoes, peeled and quartered (such as the ‘Mortgage Lifter’ or ‘German Johnson’)
58 ounces of beef broth
8 beef bouillon cubes
8 to 12 ounces of (preferably homemade) tomato paste
1 – 3.5 ounce jar of dried basil
8 bay leaves
8 tsp. salt
4 tsp oregano

Directions: Caramelize the diced onions and garlic in the olive oil in a large pot, one meant for canning large batches. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot. Simmer for 3 hours. Remove the bay leaves. Allow the sauce to cool enough to jar. Bring a pot of water to a boil and allow the jars of sauce to cook in the hot water bath for 25 minutes.


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