Frustration leads to Shellsburg’s man’s passion for the soil

Gene Mealhow of rural Shellsburg has held a variety of jobs through the years.

First and foremost he’s a farmer and has been for most of his life.

But Mealhow can also list rock-‘n’-roll drummer, sawyer, organic farmer, a brief stint as a “weed” farmer, soil consultant, Hy-Vee employee, and popcorn business owner on his résumé.

Today Mealhow and his wife Lynn own and operate the successful heirloom popcorn business ‘Tiny But Mighty Foods’ (formerly K & K Popcorn) north of town. Their popcorn products are sold at retailers across the USA, as well as on their website and through Amazon.

Mealhow first arrived in Shellsburg in 1969. He was an “athletic” and “outgoing” 9th grader at the time, he recalls, but he was also a “long-haired drummer” with a penchant for doing things differently.

He and Lynn married shortly after high school and took up farming alongside his own parents on the family farm.

But the farm crisis of the 1980s spared few and the Mealhows were no exception. Eventually Mealhow’s uncle Louie was left with little choice but to sell the bulk of the family farm in 1989.

Mealhow himself was at a crossroads. He and Lynn were parents now, with another on the way. The choice would seem obvious to many. But Mealhow admits he’s never done things by the book. The “road less traveled by”, in the words of the poet Robert Frost, seemed the most logical endeavor to this self-described hippie.

“We sold off all but 33 acres,” says Mealhow. He was still a farmer, that much hadn’t changed, but he also realized he couldn’t farm the same way anymore.      

“You need to do something different with a small acreage,” Mealhow says. And different was something Mealhow knew how to do.

The “local food movement” so popular today seemed almost revolutionary in 1989. Most Americans by that point were no longer connected to farming or even rural living in general.

The mass exodus of people off the family farm in the 20th Century disconnected Americans not just from the work of farming, but also the act of consuming foods grown nearby.

“The local food movement was a concept back then,” Mealhow says, “only a few of us were doing it.”

Mealhow decided to start farming tofu beans organically. He also took up work at the local lumber mill. Both experiences would be turning points in his life.

“I had a lot of trouble with weeds,” Mealhow says, laughing. He was getting good yields for organic beans at the time –- averaging 30 bushels per acre when the average for non-organic he says was around 40-50 –- but he was also developing a reputation for farming weeds, something he can laugh at today, but wasn’t exactly ideal then.

It was this frustration that led to his passion for the soil. Iowa is known far and wide for its rich soil -- soil nourished for centuries by the deep roots of the prairie plants that once thrived all over the state.

Mealhow sought information from several local sources as to how he could improve his soil in order to avoid chemical applications, but there wasn’t much available.

He eventually gained the help of Midwestern BioAg, a small start-up that was assisting farmers in finding that perfect harmony in their soil’s biology, chemistry, and physical characteristics.

Mealhow had found the solution to his abundant weed problem and became a soil consultant for the company not long after.    

Speaking with Mealhow today it’s easy to fall into a lengthy conversation on soil health and the techniques he continues to employ. His acreage north of Shellsburg is now Tiny But Mighty Foods sole seed corn production site for the “one-of-a-kind tiny kernel” the company is famous for.

The network of farmers who grow the popcorn for Tiny But Mighty Foods’ products reside within a 75 mile radius of Mealhow’s farm and also employ his farming techniques. Although the farms are not certified organic, “every aspect of the growing and production is done organically” according to the company website.

While working for Midwestern BioAg in 1994, Mealhow was put in touch with Urbana farmer Richard Kelty by way of Kelty’s son Brett, Mealhow’s coworker at the mill.

Most local folks know the story of Kelty’s heirloom, tiny-kernel, tiny-eared popcorn.

The Tiny But Mighty Foods’ website details the story well -- “Our little heirloom is native to North America and is considered an heirloom variety because its genetic makeup is virtually identical to corn (or maize) that covered North America for thousands of years. It was discovered by a pioneer family [the Keltys] in the 1850s.”

In 1999 Mealhow and Lynn acquired the ‘K & K Popcorn’ business from the elder Kelty after spending years working with both Kelty’s seed and soil for Midwestern BioAg in an effort to better express the plant’s wide genetic base.

The popcorn saved by the Kelty family for generations is today officially known as the variety ‘Tiny But Mighty’. Mealhow continues to work with the seed himself season after season, discovering new traits and improving yields.

Tiny But Mighty seed is a lemon-yellow color with pink, white, and red cobs. Red, white, and black seeds are also possible. Mealhow has dreams of one day cultivating these different colors, too. But for now any off-color seed is mostly bagged up and given to local pigeon keepers.

Upon reflection, Mealhow sees today’s farming as coming full circle.

“There’s a lot about the old stuff we need to relearn,” says Mealhow. “We [family farms] were a diverse ecosystem once, we used everything. We recycled the nutrients. We recycled the manure. Farmers were more connected with the soil.”

But Mealhow is an optimist and adds, “It’s coming back.”    

The job title “seed whisperer” presently fits Mealhow quite well. The many career paths he took laid down the deep roots that fed his work with his own family’s soil and eventually Kelty’s heirloom seed.

Along the way he has been afforded the understanding that soil is more than just dirt.

And a seed is never just a seed.