The tomato hornworm didn’t stand a chance in Scott Trimble’s field.
As Trimble walked his field near Heyworth, out of the corner of his eye he spotted a roly-poly hornworm eating one of his tomato plants for breakfast. Trimble picked it up, showed it to a visiting reporter, and squashed it with his shoe.
That’s how it works on Trimble’s small farm. Whether it’s popcorn or peppers or tomatoes or pumpkins, it requires a plant-by-plant attention to detail that is uncommon in traditional corn and bean farming in central Illinois.
“It just takes a lot of labor. A lot of hours,” Trimble said. “But you can be highly rewarded for it.”
Trimble’s is one of about 3,600 specialty crop farms in Illinois, producing together around $427 million in sales each year, according to the Bloomington-based Illinois Specialty Growers Association.
Trimble’s Produce Farm is perhaps best known for its popcorn, which it sells in many different varieties at its shop in Heyworth, plus Green Top Grocery and Bloomington Meats, and most Hy-Vee stores in Illinois. The popcorn business is typically three separate worlds—growers, processors, and makers (those who own a popcorn shop).
“I can’t find anybody else in the U.S. that puts all three together and does it as a business,” Trimble said. “We’re only the ones.”
And by “we” he basically means “me.” It’s mostly a one-man operation.
Trimble grew up on a farm, where his family grew corn and beans. At age 7, Something caught his eye as he flipped through a seed catalog.
“I saw strawberry popcorn. I thought, ‘Hmm, I like strawberries.’ We ate popcorn all the time. So I talked Dad into letting me plant a little. Long story short, I shelled it, dried it, and popped it, and it didn’t taste like strawberries, so I was a little disappointed,” he laughed. “But it had a different taste than the popcorn that we were normally eating.”
That taste was quality. He was hooked.
Fast-forward to 2007, when Trimble moved to Heyworth. He had worked in the ag business, but on the side he took out a plot in a community garden. That turned into a popular spot at a farmers’ market. And that turned into Trimble’s Produce Farm, where he grows popcorn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, grapes and cherries, and many other things.
When people drive by his farm just southwest of Heyworth, Trimble often sees them crane their neck as they wonder, what the heck is that guy growing?
To be sure, farming corn and beans—the traditional row crop seen in central Illinois—is not easy. It takes years to get really good at it. But you get the sense from talking to Trimble that he’d almost be bored by that.
So instead of field corn, he grows popcorn. The plant pretty much looks the same in the field until it sets the ear, then you notice it’s a little smaller. It requires a little less of a fertility program. It’s measured in pounds per acre, not bushels.
“It all kind of happened by accident,” Trimble said. “I love growing corn. This is just something different.”
Produce is a different challenge. It’s all about dollars per square foot, not dollars per acre. He has a ton of control over each plant throughout its life cycle, especially irrigation. His produce emerges from rows of white plastic in his field, which he uses to control weeds and also water (using drip irrigation).
Corn and bean farmers are often at the mercy of international markets, complex trade disputes, or political leadership. Trimble’s moneymaking shop is just down the road.
“It’s a lot easier to me to pencil out a profit on this than it would be on corn and beans, especially in a year like this. Regular row crop, it’s about mitigating your losses right now,” Trimble said. “I’m growing straight to the consumer.”
That has its own quirks. Produce is all about timing. Lettuce, for example, can go bitter in one day if you don’t pick it at the right time.
Trimble's ambitious too: He shoots for 45 to 60 pounds of tomatoes per plant. He’s grown banana trees here; it took him two years. He’d like to try citrus but the climate won’t let him.
“When produce is ready, you can’t wait another week. No, it’s ready now,” Trimble said. “It’s time to go!”
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