Mother Earth Gardener

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.

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.

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.

  • Published on Feb 20, 2018
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