WAKEMAN, Ohio — To the untrained eye, the corn fields at the Humphrey Farm in Huron County look like any other field of corn you might see. But if you look a little closer at the ears, you’ll notice they’re not quite as large as field corn.
That’s because the farm produces popcorn — between 50 and 100 acres each year — for making the popular Humphrey popcorn and snacks like Humphrey Popcorn Balls.
The 550-acre farm has been in the Humphrey family since the mid-1800s, minus a few years toward the end of the century when the family fell on hard times and sold the land. But the Humphrey family — now living in Cleveland — bought the farm back for the second time around 1927 and has been raising its famous popcorn there ever since.
The farm is managed by the third generation of the Stackhouse family. Clay Stackhouse became farm manager in 1927 and was succeeded by his son, John Stackhouse and his family. John, who also served as Ohio’s director of agriculture for 16 years, died in 1986, and John’s son-in-law, Pete Hazel, became manager in 1986 and manages the farm with help from his wife, Susan, and mother-in-law, Ruth Stackhouse.
Altogether, the family farms a little more than 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, but it’s the popcorn that made the farm famous. A large, historical barn bears the name “HUMPHREY” across its roof — a name synonymous with quality popcorn.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Humphreys moved to Cleveland and began selling popcorn on street corners. They designed new and improved popcorn popping machines and gradually became one of the largest popcorn vendors in the region.
Sometime around 1901, they purchased Euclid Beach Park, near Euclid, Ohio, which would serve as their flagship location until its closing in 1969.
The farm is still owned by Dudley Humphrey and his wife, Betsy. But they sold the popcorn manufacturing plant in Warrensville Heights in August.
Dudley Humphrey, 62, decided it was time to retire. He spent most of his life working for the company in one way or another. He and his wife ran the business for 30 years, but they didn’t have any family members interested in the business so they decided to sell the manufacturing side.
“It was not as much fun as it had used to be and we weren’t as patient,” he said.
But, he retains the original farm and made an amicable agreement with the manufacturing company to continue selling popcorn from his farm.
Humphrey said the Stackhouse family has been a great fit for managing the farm — ever since they started in 1927.
Being retired has allowed him to make more trips south to the family farm, but Humphrey said the Stackhouse family usually knows more about what’s going on than he does.
“I’m not a farmer. I don’t have a clue,” he said, with laughter. “They’re wonderful people; we couldn’t ask for nicer, more honest people.”
Although popcorn is not as popular a crop in Ohio as field corn, Hazel said it actually is very similar when it comes to planting, growing and harvesting. He uses the same corn planter as he uses for field corn, and the fertility and agronomics are basically the same, he said.
“To the untrained eye just driving down the road, you may not even notice that a field is popcorn rather than field corn,” he said. “When the ears set, it’s a little easier to see, because popcorn ears just aren’t as big as field corn.”
Hazel raises a short season white popcorn. Although yellow popcorn generally yields more and is easier to grow, he said white corn makes a better kernel and is better for making candy snacks like the popcorn balls.
When it’s ready to be harvested, he uses a four-row uni-harvester and it’s harvested while still on the ear, and stored in grain bins to dry.
Picking the corn “is a lot gentler” on the kernels than using a sheller to harvest, he said. In order to pop, a kernel needs a hard outer coating, which “pops” when the moisture inside the kernel is cooked and forced to “burst” and “pop” open the coating. If a corn sheller is used to harvest, it often scratches the kernels and allows moisture to escape prematurely, so that the kernel no longer “pops” open when cooked.
One difference from field corn, he said, is that popcorn does tend to attract more insects like flea beetles, and some insects attack the silk of popcorn ears more so than field corn.
“It tastes better, I guess,” Hazel said.
The popcorn is packaged in two-pound plastic bags and shipped to grocery stores in and around Cleveland. Larger, 50-pound bags are sometimes packaged, and Ruth said some families will buy that much and divide it amongst themselves at holidays.
Popcorn that’s used in candy snacks is sent to the plant in Warrensville, where it’s popped and combined with the ingredients to make popcorn balls and other value-added snacks.
As manager, Hazel and his family own the equipment and are responsible for the bookkeeping and additional acres that they rent. But the buildings and the corporation are owned by Dudley Humphrey and his wife.
“When I describe our situation to other people, they’re surprised that we don’t have a formal management contract and so forth,” Hazel said. “It’s just done with a handshake.”
His mother-in-law admits, “(Pete) has quite a bit of freedom … but he has to pay the bills,” she said.
Recently, he’s given some thought to raising corn and rye for a distillery that a relative of Betsy Humphrey just bought. The grains from the farm can be used to make the mash. Bourbon is being made with Humphrey field corn and Hazel said there could be some long-term opportunity.
Popcorn is only about a tenth of the acreage on the farm, but its still what the farm is most known for.
“It’s always been a source of pride,” Hazel said, and one they can sell directly from the farm, to retail.
And it’s a product people enjoy and keep coming back — for more than 100 years.
“People who have tried it or know it, they ask for it,” Ruth said.