Fifth victory in 2 years leaves competition salty
By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
For the fifth time in 12 years, Jumpin’ Johnny Spangler of Monroe County has won the WV Pop-Off. Held in Charleston this February, the contest is hosted by the WVU Extension Service Small Farm office.
“We started it as a way to promote more people growing popcorn in West Virginia,” Spangler remembers of the first contest back in 2012. “We’re all getting older and more gray!”
Spangler told his kids he isn’t sure he will enter the contest again. “Then I can say (to the next winner), ‘You won, but you didn’t beat me,’” as he bellows a hearty laugh. “Then I can go out on top!”
‘We just allow nature to do what it does’
Popcorn gained popularity as a snack during the depression, as it was an affordable and wholesome snack food. Today, Americans eat more than 14 billion quarts per year, according to the Annual Survey of Manufacturers. If you add in all the small farms, Spangler says in total it’s enough for every American to consume 68 quarts annually.
Spangler sells his popcorn in nine different states, to seven different county school systems, and in all West Virginia state parks. “I think popcorn should be the state snack in West Virginia. It’s whole grain, affordable, and good to eat.”
What makes his popcorn so good? How is he able to win these contests year after year?
“We just allow nature to do what it does,” he tells me. “Most commercial popcorn you buy in the store is 1-2 years old before it ever hits a shelf. Then it’s dried mechanically and flavored and packaged and goes through all sorts of machines. We dry ours using the sun. We take it off the cobb with a 1943 John Deere tractor.”
In short, “If you’ve never had fresh popcorn, it tastes different.”
The bigger picture
Five victories in twelve years is a dynasty for the state’s largest popcorn grower, Spangler Farms in Lindside, WV. But for “Jumpin’ Johnny” Spangler, it’s about something much larger. “We try hard to interest the next generation. There are too many kids leaving West Virginia. Agriculture is an opportunity to change that.”
Spangler regularly visits schools to teach children about agriculture. He not only educates them on his farming practices and techniques, but he also pitches them agriculture as a career. “You can be a graphic designer to help with packaging, an engineer to help with logistics, a mechanic to keep the equipment running, marketing to help get the product on a shelf, a businessperson to make the farm run and be prosperous, or a climatologist or hydrologist to help with irrigation. Anything you want to do, you can do for the farm and help put food on the table for families.”
If you’ve met a more passionate advocate for agriculture than Spangler, it would surprise me. He eats, lives, and breathes it. His friend Mary Surbaugh says, “He’s forgotten more about agriculture than most people know.”
‘I was being robbed’
In the early 1990s, Spangler’s family farm was the state’s largest organic operation in West Virginia. Yet, it wasn’t performing as well as Spangler hoped. Then a trip to Lewisburg changed everything.
He was walking down the Washington Street in the center of town, when he noticed a sack of his organic potatoes in the window of Edith’s, a health food store. He went inside and asked the woman at the counter, “Do you mind if I ask where you got those potatoes?”
The woman, who turned out to be Edith herself, told him that she purchased them from an organic food distributor in Virginia. The same one he’d driven hours to see and do business with, only to find his potatoes for sale in the next county over.
“Do you mind if I ask how much he charged you?” he asked Edith.
She told him the price, and he nearly fell over. “The middle man made more money than I did,” he recalls.
It was in that moment he realized he could sell his organic produce directly to consumers and benefit both himself and Edith.
“She gave me an education that day about how I was gettin’ robbed,” he says. “We were good friends from that moment forward, and to this day I make sure her store gets my products anytime she needs them.”
If your belly is growling after reading about popcorn, you’re probably wondering where you can buy Jumpin’ Johnny’s popcorn. Kids can get it at school, as he sells directly to county school boards for lunches. Travelers and citizens can get it at our state parks, where it’s a staple. And best of all, you can order it anytime directly from the farm.
“Just put it on order on my Facebook page, Jumpin’ Johnny’s Popcorn,” he tells me. “That’ll go to my daughter. She’ll give me the orders. And I’ll fill ‘em.”
Spangler does it all. He grows the corn, harvests it, stores it, packages it, and ships it directly to your door.
“There’s a lot of stuff that comes to your door besides Amazon!” he goads. “We’ve got all kinds of flavors–kettlecorn, salted, jalapeno, carmel apple, pumpkin spice, Old Bay, cheddar. If you buy cheddar in the store, you get that dusty stuff on it. Our cheddar popcorn is made using real cheese.”
He says they’ve even started making popcorn for gender reveal parties. “We do pink and blue! Or we make popcorn for kid’s birthday parties or sleepovers. People really like it.”
And you get what you order. The WV School of Osteopathic Medicine orders popcorn for their graduation. “If they have 503 people coming, then I deliver them 503 servings.”
The same principle applies for schools or direct to consumer orders. Johnny packages the corn he plants and harvests. “We do it all on the farm,” he proudly proclaims.
The pencil is mightier than the plow
Spangler spends a lot of time with students. He always begins his talks with students by pulling a pencil out of his pocket and saying, “This is the most important tool you have on the farm. If you can’t make it work with a pencil at your kitchen table, then you can’t make it work in the fields.”
Over the years, his pencil work has led him to embrace new ways of doing things. One time, his son pointed out that all his equipment was over 50 years old. He embraced the suggestion and used a drone to monitor his crops. “We hold to the old, but we embrace the new technologies as well.”
Another example of this approach lies in how Spangler measures when his corn is ready to harvest. “Popcorn has to be 12% moisture before it will pop,” he says. “Before, to see see if corn I was ready, I’d wiggle it on the cobb. If it felt like a child’s loose tooth, it was ready.” But today, he tests it and knows precisely what the moisture level is so he can harvest at the right time.
He shares these approaches directly with students as often as he can. A few years ago, he bought raised beds for students at a local school. He visits regularly to teach the students about agriculture.
“We need to be aware of climate change,” he tells the students. “The changes we’re seeing will affect farming, and our kids need to be aware of it.”
Spangler said a new school near his farm was built to include multiple rooms for social workers, psychologists, and counselors. At first, he thought that was silly. But then the more time he spent with students, the more he realized, “We need all that. Kids don’t have it easy in today’s world.”
So the Spangler decided to put their money where their mouth was. They set up a scholarship fund to support young people wanting to better themselves through education. “All my kids got scholarships and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do that for others?’” So that’s exactly what they did.
‘A better place to live’
Spangler is a successful farmer with a broad reach in a multi-region area. But his deep ties to the local community are what drive him.
“I am rich with children, good friends, and community. Like I tell people all the time, ‘If you want a better place to live, then invest in it. You can’t forget the community that has supported you your whole life.”
Whether Jumpin’ Johnny’s will compete for a sixth state title in 13 years remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: John Spangler’s mission to make West Virginia grow again will live on. Whether he is at a school teaching students or at a conference teaching other farmers, he will always be a champion for the family farm.