Skip Navigation
Gavin Spoor - FCS Financial Heartbeat Magazine

Gavin Spoor in popcorn warehouse

By Joann Pipkin

North beyond the flooded and torn state capital, the four-lane leads us back to our roots. As Mother Nature throws yet another curve ball, mile after mile of stagnant water fills the rows that ought to glisten green as tender, young corn reaches for a sun-filled sky. 

Alas, it isn’t to be this late spring day. After a drought-plagued 2018, the faded denim and muddy boots stare down rain-soaked fields to start this year’s growing season. They’re anxious, impatient, yet realize the weather is the one part of the operation they can’t control.

Winding our way north through the countryside, in the heart of Audrain County, Highway 54 journeys east where century-old farmsteads line the roadway. Farmer-owned feedlots sit quietly, reminding of a time gone by. Here, the new kid on the block brings his generation’s mindset to the tractor seat. 

Spoor Farms popcorn

 

While row crops still reign, it’s popcorn that fills the bin at Spoor Farms as first generation farmer Gavin Spoor reels in today’s consumer one kernel of goodness at a time.

following his footsteps

At only 21, Gavin Spoor shares his story with enthusiasm for an industry matched by that of the veteran farmers that dot the landscape near the home his family rents outside rural Martinsburg. 

The son of a brick plant worker and nurse, as a toddler Spoor scurried to the kitchen window where he’d watch for hours as the big tractors worked the ground surrounding his family’s home. At 16, he began working for local farmers after school and on weekends. As a member of the Community R-VI FFA Chapter, Spoor excelled in the agronomy and forestry career development events. He was also a state winner in the grain production placement proficiency.

“The last person in my family to farm was my grandpa, and he passed away in 1977,” Spoor says of his maternal grandfather, Charles Schaefer. Although the two never knew each other, Spoor rents land from an aunt and uncle that his grandfather once farmed. “It’s cool following my grandpa’s footsteps farming the same ground he did.”

rows of popcorn growing in fieldWith little farming in his blood, but loads of it on his mind and in his heart, in 2016 Spoor started an operation of his own. The young entrepreneur planted soybeans on six, cash-rented acres. The crop made him just enough money for a down payment on a tractor.

“Last year, I farmed 120 acres and 15 of that was popcorn,” Spoor explains. This year, he’ll farm 180 acres of mostly soybeans with between 35 and 40 acres of popcorn. He also owns a custom spraying and seed business with a friend from high school. The operation allows both young farmers to buy inputs at a reduced rate.

Returns on corn and soybeans can be somewhat challenging for a farm’s cash flow, so Spoor looked for a specialty crop that could turn a profit for a small producer like him. With little extra time to sit by a roadside vegetable stand, he turned to popcorn. 

“It has a long shelf life,” Spoor explains. “You can ship it fairly easily and market it pretty well.”

Realizing he couldn’t compete with well-known popcorn brands, Spoor instead looks at creative marketing — working to connect with consumers.

“I can’t compete on price, and I don’t want to,” he says. “I try to compete with the story. I try to add value to my product by telling the story behind it.”

connecting the dots

Armed with the same technological mindset as his 20-something peers, Spoor says farmers are often disconnected with today’s consumer. 

Spoor Farms popcorn bag

“I want to fill in that gap with consumers and teach them where food comes from, let them watch the entire process,” he says.

Through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram as well as YouTube, Spoor hopes to show consumers how a tiny corn kernel can grow into a huge plant, is harvested, packaged and shipped straight to their doorsteps. 

“So many people don’t know where their food comes from,” he explains. “With corn and soybeans, it’s difficult to talk to someone that’s not familiar with agriculture. They don’t understand that it gets turned into ethanol or cattle feed. But, popcorn goes straight into their microwave. So, it’s a lot easier to start that conversation.”

Pledging to be an “open book,” Spoor hopes to take consumers through every step of the growing process — from tillage to planting to growing to harvest. 

“If I’ve got a disease that comes through or bugs like we had last year with the Japanese beetle, I want (consumers) to know what’s going on out there,” he says. “That’s how I add value to my product, by doing those sort of things.”

The University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) senior combines this tech-savvy marketing technique with good ol’ fashioned, grass roots hard work. 

And, Spoor’s efforts are paying off. Thus far, consumers can find Spoor Farms popcorn online at spoorfarms.com as well as in 11 retail outlets in central and northeast Missouri, including Hy-Vee in Columbia. 

With nothing more than determination and a story to tell, Spoor stepped inside store after store asking to speak to the manager. He explains, “I literally walked in the door and said, ‘Hey, is your manager here? Can I talk to him? I’ve got a product. What would it take to sell at your store?’”

popcorn plants

Once he learned he needed a nutrition label and bar code on his product before stores would consider selling it, Spoor again turned to his tech-savvy ways for direction. A simple Google search helped him shed light on product labels, packaging and barcodes. 

With the help of an MU professor, Spoor was able to determine the nutritional value of his product as well.

Once he had the nutrition label, packaging and barcode, Spoor was ready for harvest so he could go back to stores and sell his story. He provides both product and a shelf to house it inside each retail outlet. 

“It helps my product sell, but it also helps the store because if they sell my product, I provide that shelf free of charge,” Spoor says.

accepting the challenges

Popcorn is similar to standard field corn, however the crop reaches maturity at about 100 days instead of 112 to 114. Spoor targets planting in mid-May, a little later than standard corn. 

“Through the growing season it gets treated exactly the same,” Spoor says. “It grows the same, it tassels. It looks like a hybrid between field corn and sweet corn.”

Still, popcorn is a crop all its own with moisture content a key element.

"Moisture has to be within 12.5 percent and 13 percent,” Spoor explains. “If it’s not between 12 percent and 14 percent, it won’t pop. It’ll split and not explode or will just burn.”

After harvest last fall, Spoor stored the popcorn in a bin. In January, it was hauled to Kansas where it was cleaned and packaged in 50-pound bags. He was able to get a video of the packaging process that can be shared to help tell his story to consumers.

Gavin Spoor and Dan Rhoades with FCS Financial

A mid-August windstorm sent part of Spoor’s 2018 crop to the ground. Yet, he was able to salvage it with the help of his brother and some of his high school friends.

“We picked it on the ear, and you could put that ear directly into the microwave and it would pop off the cob,” Spoor says. “You throw the cob in the trash and you’ve got popcorn ready to eat. We picked between 2,000 and 3,000 ears on the cob. My neighbor was able to harvest the rest of the crop with a regular combine corn head.”

Spoor says popcorn must be handled carefully, making sure not to knick any kernels. 

“If you just barely knick a popcorn kernel, whenever it gets hot, it won’t explode,” Spoor says. “It has to build up pressure, so you have to be very gentle with it.”

This year, Spoor plans to branch out from the standard yellow popcorn by offering white, red, blue and black as well. “I was able to source every color of popcorn available, and I’m going to pick a lot more of that on the ear because I think that could hit a really cool customer base,” he says. “It will really get their hands on what popcorn looks like and where it’s coming from. And, the colors just make it fun.”

finding a partner

Spoor admits he’s “wired a bit differently.” After all, why else would someone want to work extra hard at something about which they know very little? 

“I knew I wanted to farm since I was really young, I just didn’t know how I was going to make it happen,” Spoor says. “To get on the same playing field with all of the established farmers, I have to work twice as hard. I live by the quote, ‘Dreams only work if you do.’”

Reviewing numbers

It only seems fitting that Spoor turned to FCS Financial for assistance when he was ready to put his dreams into action. “They’re super understanding and want to help a young guy succeed. That means a lot,” he says. 

With the help of FCS Financial’s Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Loan Program, Spoor secured the operating capital he needed for seed, fertilizer and equipment. 

In addition to operating funds, acquiring land can also be challenging for young farmers like Spoor. “Not being from a farming family, trying to work in a farming community, people know who I am, but they don’t really know much about me.”

As a result, Spoor’s 200 acres of farmland stretches some 40 miles. Yet, he takes it in stride.

“You have to get really creative and work with landowners when you find them and do a good job,” he says.

The young farmer is a sponge of sorts, soaking up every bit of information he can from his farmer neighbors. “You can really learn a lot if you try to look at things from another’s perspective,” Spoor says. 

As much as Spoor is a new generation farmer, he is all business when it comes to the ins and outs of running his operation. That means a signed contract is a must for rental agreements. 

“We even have a contract for land I rent from my aunt and uncle,” he says. “It’s not 10 pages long or anything, it’s just simple. This is what I provide; this is what you get in return. And then, we sign our names. It protects both ends.”

Spoor’s business and communication skills are a plus when it comes to working with FCS Financial. 

“Gavin is starting from scratch,” explains Dan Rhoades, FCS Financial assistant vice president. “He’s got to sell what he’s doing, and he’s done a good job of that. He’s also a good communicator.”

With a keen eye for record keeping, Spoor comes to the table with a solid marketing plan, staying on top of the tasks he can control in the operation.

“There’s going to be a lot of farmers that are retiring, and there’s going to be a lot of shoes to fill,” he says. 

Spoor is also eager to give back to the ag community. He is quick to share his story with elementary school students as well as FFA members and others interested in starting a farm. 

“I enjoy seeing kids’ eyes light up whenever they figure out and make this connection,” Spoor says. 

With the business still in its infancy, Spoor often relies on family and friends to assist with packaging and deliveries. While he was busy studying for college finals in mid-May, Spoor’s parents, sister and her children packaged 250 bags of Spoor Farms popcorn that will make the trip this summer with FCS Financial for the cooperative’s Washington D.C. fly-in.

“It’s really cool that a little farm boy in Missouri grew something last year, and it’s now in the nation’s capital,” he says. “It’s crazy when you put it all in perspective.”

While his knowledge of farming might not be as firmly rooted as some, Spoor brings an entrepreneurial spirit and tireless work ethic to the table, creating a legacy for other next-generation farmers. 

“I don’t want to throw popcorn at somebody who doesn’t like popcorn,” Spoor says. “But, if someone’s interested in buying a product straight from farm, it might as well be mine.” 

Don’t Miss any updates or news Get Updates

Supporting the future of farming

Over $1.5 million given to local 4-H and FFA organizations

4-H Logo FFA Logo AFA Logo

© 2008-2019 FCS Financial. All Rights Reserved.

Privacy Policy | Sitemap | Whistleblower

Design and Development by Imagemakers

NMLS #: 761836

Equal Housing Lender