Cambridge, Minn. — A hull is vital to a boat, but in popcorn, it can be annoying. So two farm families are betting consumers will appreciate their new brand of popcorn with virtually no hull.

“People question it, then they try it,” says Gail Welsh, co-owner of S & W Family Farms, Inc., producers of the popcorn. “But ‘virtually hulless’ is really what gets their attention.”

Most of S & W’s popcorn, “Harvest Delight,” is ordered by phone or mail, but direct sales at farmers markets and trade shows are growing. Harvest Delight is also sold in the produce section of Rainbow Foods, Knowlans and Festival Foods.

Growing the hull out

Breeding a specialized, “virtually hulless” popcorn took some time. Well over a decade ago, Cambridge area farmer Thomas “Woody” Barnard began with just 12 ears of eight-color Guatemalan corn. Barnard painstakingly selected premium kernels, particular about colors and quality. His endeavors eventually led to the sweet small kernels of a crunchy popcorn that sold for years as “Thomas Barnard’s Old Fashioned Popcorn.” But his crowning achievement was the thin, almost non-existent hull of his popcorn — a satisfying eat and kind to the teeth.

In 1999, however, Barnard, a.k.a. “Popcorn Man,” was injured and could no longer market his prize product. Joining forces, Leslie and Roger Swenningson and Mike and Gail Welsh created S & W Family Farm, Inc. and bought Barnard out.

“Thomas wanted to keep the company local,” Welsh says. “He had offers from bigger companies out of state, but he wanted to keep it in Minnesota.”

Peddling the popcorn

Barnard had only sold his popcorn in a 30 to 40 mile radius, refusing to tackle the Twin Cities markets. “It’s difficult to get a product like this going,” Welsh says. “It’s really like a brand new product. There was no UPC code, the product wasn’t being sold in very many places, and it is hard to get into stores.”

Raising the corn isn’t simple either. The crop must be “babied” along. “It grows on a small stalk that’s very sensitive,” Welsh says. “But it’s worth the extra work. We are just as dedicated to the same high quality and standards that Thomas Barnard displayed.”

S & W renamed the popcorn “Harvest Delight” and gave the packaging a makeover. In the beginning, they sold only to farmers markets, selling about 250 pounds over the weekends. “It’s growing in popularity,” Welsh says. “We sell about 700 pounds during the farmers market weekends now.”

Just do it

Both families work hard to make Harvest Delight a success. Gail and Mike, who is also a carpenter, are involved in all aspects of processing the bicolored popcorn. The Swenningsons have outside jobs as well. Both families raise the corn on their Cambridge-area farms.

“We just do what needs to be done,” Gail says. “Each of us is involved in the whole process, from growing to cleaning to bagging and then to marketing,” she says. “I just bagged 1000 pounds yesterday by myself. It’s a full-time job on its own.”

S & W is involved in several farmers markets, targeting Minneapolis Fridays through Sundays and the Nicollet Mall on Thursdays. They reach a large scale of customers at these locations, and build repeat mail order customers this way.

Meanwhile, S & W struggles to keep product on the shelves of big stores such as Rainbow Foods. “There is less shelf space for a new product, and it’s hard to get more,” Welsh says.

Helping hands

AURI Morris field office manager Michael Sparby and Program Specialist Jody Koubsky worked with S & W to find a marketing company and “get us off the ground,” Welsh says. Charan Wadhawan, AURI cereals and nutrition scientist, helped S & W comply with labeling regulations.

Marketing efforts have received a boost through the state’s Minnesota Grown program and the Small Business Development Center in Brainerd.