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Good things are popping in Castle Rock

At age 90, Clem Becker still works in the field picking popcorn. Clem's Homegrown Popcorn is available in stores at Greg's Meats in Hampton, Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls and Just Food co-op in Northfield.

People who have come to expect their popcorn comes in ready-for-the-microwave bags might be surprised to see behind the scenes at Clem's Homegrown Popcorn.

The Castle Rock Township operation, which has been selling popcorn for the past 12 years, is less Orville Redenbacher and more Old MacDonald. The corn grows in long rows on about 3/4 of an acre. It looks like any other corn field until you pull the husk off one of the cobs and find a long, slender cob covered with kernels that are nearly orange rather than the yellow of sweet corn. Those cobs, picked by hand each October, are dried in screen-covered shopping carts, then run through machinery that is nearly 80 years old to strip off the kernels. The kernels are dried, then stored in five-gallon buckets until they are packaged in muslin bags that are all sewed by hand.

The result is some of the freshest, tastiest popcorn around. Clem's produced about 4,000 pounds of it last year. That's not bad for a small, family-run business that started as a hobby some 25 years ago.

"We always did like popcorn," said Clem Becker, who started growing the corn in a small patch meant just for his family.

That was the way things were for a long time, but when daughter-in-law Cindy Plash came to town in 1996 she was inspired to do more. She loved the popcorn, and she figured other people would, too. She started selling the popcorn to friends in 1998, and the operation grew steadily from there.

Plash said she knew right away the popcorn would be popular.

"It was so good," she said. "I'd never tasted popcorn that was fresh. A lot of people haven't. It's kind of a treat."

These days the popcorn is available at three retail shops and at the Farmington farmers' market. It's also available online.

Clem's Homegrown Popcorn is still an entirely family-run operation. Cindy and her husband, Randy Becker, tend the field while the corn grows. Relatives come out to help weed. Clem, who is 90, still helps pick the popcorn. Last year he filled 185 five-gallon buckets by himself.

Working in the field on Tuesday, Becker said he might work less next year. His daughter-in-law reminds him he said the same thing last year.

"It doesn't hurt me," he said. "As long as I don't have to be here all year."

Getting it all done is hard work. Standing in the field, Becker pulls ears off the stalk one by one. He peels back the husk and examines each one. Using a tool that looks a little bit like an old-fashioned can opener strapped to his hand he pulls out bad kernels. As he makes his way down the row he breaks the stalks so he knows which ones he's picked.

Getting to this point has been a learning process for Plash. She had to learn about growing the corn, and about properly drying the kernels. She added a small greenhouse to the back of her house to help with the drying operation. But she quickly discovered that kernels that dry in the daytime sun can reabsorb moisture during the cooler night.

"They didn't tell me all the little things you need to know," Plash said. "I was a city girl."

She enjoys the work, though. She likes the peace and quiet she can find when she goes out to pick popcorn, and she likes going out and selling. She likes educating people who know popcorn only as a finished product and have only a vague notion of where it comes from.

This is the busy time of year at Clem's Homegrown Popcorn. The whole process, from picking to drying to packaging, takes about a month. Everybody seems to enjoy the work, though. Plash wants to keep things small enough it stays that way.

It's taken off," she said. "People enjoy it. I want to keep having fun. That's the name of the game."

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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