Cooking up new markets


Freitags test waters in wholesale, retail popcorn value-added business

By Cynthia Scheer Telescope News

The ears of popping corn weren’t supposed to sell this well.

As Nate Freitag tells is, his father, Lonny, laughed at him for even trying to market the whole ears of corn and said he’d have the combine ready to run the ears through when the ears didn’t sell.

But they did. They sold so well that the Freitags had sold out of the 800 popping ears in only a month, and people were still requesting more.

The Freitags are quite new to the popcorn business. Nate Freitag’s father has been a contracted popcorn grower for 20-plus years, but he and his wife grew their first popcorn crop last year. Their first harvest was last September, and they sold their first popcorn in November. They are now planning the 2016 crop and taking orders for popping ears as they continue to introduce people to their homegrown popcorn.

Nate Freitag was a farm kid who graduated from ChesterHubbell-Byron in 2001. His wife grew up in a Pennsylvania town of 50,000 people. The couple lived in her home state for 10 years until they moved to Belleville in 2013.

“One of the enticing things about moving back was working with my dad,” Nate Freitag said, adding that he helps his father with the field corn and soybean crops in addition to his 40-hour a-week job as a social studies teacher for online students.

“He’s always wanted to move back and go into farming with his dad,” said Stacey Freitag, who did marketing for a hospital in Pennsylvania before becoming a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s daughters, ages 5, 3 and 11 months. “He wanted the girls to grow up on a farm.”

A popcorn venture

The Freitags decided to start their own popcorn business after so many requests for popcorn by family. Free Day Popcorn – the German translation for Freitag is Friday, or “free day” – was started with the planting of two acres of popcorn on Nate Freitag’s father’s farm near Byron.

Stacey Freitag consulted a bag of popcorn to determine that it was harvested on Sept. 24. The harvested date is right there on the package, she said, which you won’t get from commercial popcorn.

The harvested kernels were taken to Marquette, Neb., located north of Aurora, to a food-grade cleaning plant. The product was bagged in 25 and 50-pound bags.

Nate Freitag wanted to leave three full rows of corn for popping ears, he said, but his father talked him out of it by reminding his son how long it would take to pick all of those ears by hand.

Nate Freitag said that when he was younger his family popped ears of popcorn in the microwave whenever there were ears that weren’t the correct moisture for selling. The correct moisture for popcorn is 13.5 percent. Too much and the product molds, he said. Too little and the corn won’t pop well.

The Freitags ended up with about 150 feet of unpicked popcorn to do by hand last year, which took three adults about two hours to pick.

“That’s why people don’t do this,” Nate Freitag said of other growers selling popping ears.

He said he wanted to sell popping ears because of the novelty of the product, and so that customers can see what popcorn looks like on the cob.

Several stores were skeptical about selling popping ears, the couple said, but the stores soon sold out and were requesting more.

Educating consumers

The Freitags said they hope their product will educate consumers.

“There is a disconnect between people in the city and their food,” Nate Freitag said. “We are trying to educate people through our blog.”

The blog includes harvest pictures, caramel corn recipies and more. The couple also has a website for their popcorn.

The couple said they are still learning how to market their popcorn. The product’s packaging – mason jars with burlap tied around the lids – helped it sell well before Christmas, Stacey Freitag said.

The Freitags said they think the farm-fresh, nonGMO labeling helps the product sell. Unlike some varieties of field corn, popcorn is not genetically modified, Nate Freitag said, so he and his wife capitalize on that by advertising the product as non-GMO.

Selling popcorn

The Freitags have contacted many grocery stores, movie theatres and gift businesses about selling Free Day Popcorn, and the product is now available in several stores in Kansas and Nebraska. The Barnyard Gifts and Food Mart in Belleville carry the product, and The Blair Theatre now sells the Freitags’ popcorn.

“We are excited to help a local business and someone who lives right here in Belleville,” says Jenny Pachta, director of the Blair Theater. “It’s a win-win situation. We don’t have to buy such large quantities, and I know that it is always fresh.”

The couple is also planning on a few movie theatres in Pennsylvania carrying the product and are planning to send a couple pallets of popcorn there this fall.

In the meantime, the couple is enjoying working together to highlight a product that is grown locally. And they enjoy the convenience of having homegrown popcorn for a snack. Stacey Freitag has been dubbed “The Popcorn Lady” around the area, she said.

“I’ve found a lot of recipes on the internet, and the girls help me throw marshmallows in,” she said. “I think we are going to make candy coated popcorn with M&Ms for school.”

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