Farm Horizons, May 1999

New product 'pops' up on Lester Prairie farm

Reprinted with permission from the February 21 issue of the 1999 Farm Scene, a supplement to the Glencoe Advertiser.

After a year of research, Larry and Cathy Michaletz of Lester Prairie decided a good value-added product for their farm would be popcorn.

Doing business as Nature's Prairie, the Michaletzes have been producing popcorn for two years. It took a year prior to that to decide on a product and conduct all the research for successful marketing.

In real estate, the catch phrase is "location, location, location." To have a successful value-added product, the Michaletzes believe one cannot stress "marketing, marketing, marketing" enough.

From a room that serves as their office, Larry Michaletz grabs a book with a copyright of 1918-1919. From it he has pulled the phrase, "Production is but half of the farmer's business. Not until he has marketed what he raised, can he begin to look for profits."

"You see, the idea of what we're doing is nothing new," he said.

The Michaletzes did not go blindly into producing popcorn, which they produce in three colors. Some decisions were based on what equipment and knowledge they already had.

"I wanted to grow something I knew something about," Larry Michaletz said. "The production of popcorn is similar to the production of field corn. I needed to be able to utilize the equipment I already had for planting, cultivating and harvesting.

"We also looked at value-added soybeans, but we thought popcorn would be more acceptable," he said.

What followed was brainstorming sessions with family and friends as what would draw consumers to their popcorn. To grow colored popcorn was added to the plan.

 

"We wanted something patriotic so we decided on red, white, and blue," Larry Michaletz said. This was followed by research to see if naturally colored popcorn could be grown in Minnesota.

"And we had to find out if we could obtain economic yields and if it would produce efficiently," he said.

The Michaletzes found that popcorn does produce lower yields, but was economically feasible.

After deciding on a product, it was time to tap into the knowledge of others. Talking with people who have done similar entrepreneurial ventures was a huge help to the Michaletzes, and it helped lay out their business road map.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Minnesota Grown program also helped.

"I found a great resource person through the sustainable agriculture program," Larry Michaletz said.

Family and friends again stepped in to help name the company. "It's important to have a name that you can live with. That took a long time. We would write down a number of names and went through the process of elimination," he said.

The product and the name was perhaps the easier part of the business. Once that was done, they hired a graphic artist to design the label and had to decide on a package.

At the urging of their 17-year-old daughter, Emily, they settled on a clear, 20-ounce soft plastic container that looks like a pop bottle.

"Bottle companies don't send you one bottle, Cathy Michaletz said. "They send you cases of bottles."

"And the companies that make the bottles don't make the lids," Larry Michaletz added, "so we had to find a supplier for that."

The method to choose packaging went back to the help of family and friends.

"We would fill a bottle with popcorn and set in on the counter, look at it for a week to see which one we liked better," Cathy Michaletz said. Also in the mix was the need to apply for licenses.

With a product in a package, it was time to test market it. This research determined Nature's Prairie popcorn would sell well in gift shops and at what price.

"We found because of the colors, and because it's organic, people feel they are getting something special," Cathy Michaletz said. "This goes well with the consumers who shop at specialty gift shops."

"We found this is not a grocery store product," Larry Michaletz said.

Recently, the Michaletzes have begun to develop a line of popcorn seasonings, known in marketing circles as complementary products.

After taste testing eight products at food shows, they picked the most popular: butter and carmel flavor.

They have also started test marketing yellow popcorn, which is produced by another grower.

The organic popcorn is grown on 20 acres, and eventually, Michaletz would like to grow 100 acres. Yield per acre is 3,000 pounds, or about 50 bushels, about half as much as field corn. Popcorn uses 30 percent less nitrogen than field corn.

The popcorn is grown on different farms so they do not cross pollinate and color is not diluted. It is kept away from sweet corn, which will cross pollinate, and from field corn.

Michaletz also talks with neighbors so they can tell him about their cropping plans and get warnings about chemical drift and cross pollination.

To keep the popcorn a premium product, Larry Michaletz said they have stepped back about 40 years in the harvesting and drying process. It is harvested on the ear to prevent cracking and is dried with forced air dryers, which do not use heat. This type of drying preserves the bright colors, he said.

While drying, each night the moisture content of the popcorn is tested in a very simple way. It is popped in the Michaletz's kitchen. What the family does not eat goes to some very well fed birds.

"Even our cats like popcorn," Cathy Michaletz said.

The Michaletzes continue to try different color mixes to make their popcorn appealing.

The colors of the Lester Prairie school district are maroon and gold and, at home, they have tried mixing the red and gold popcorn in ratios that are appealing. A possible name would be Bulldog popcorn, after the school's mascot.

They tried mixing the purple and gold colors for Viking popcorn, but found it did not fit with the colors of the label.

The business is growing. The Michaletzes said the support from the Lester Prairie area has been good. They said the product has been selling well at Angvall's Hardware and Mercantile in Lester Prairie.

Cathy Michaletz said there are small things that will have to change. They will probably need another phone line that 4-year-old Molly cannot answer, and do away with greeting callers by 'Hello.'

"We have people call, and they wonder if they have the right place," she said.

For more information about Nature's Prairie popcorn, write 19262 Dairy Ave., Lester Prairie, MN 55354, or call 320-395-2629, 1-888-285-0673.

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