SLAUGHTERS, Ky. – Kerry Winstead and Brian Hornback raise popcorn for Preferred Popcorn, but on a warm, clear mid-October day, they are racing to harvest as much yellow corn as they can before rain arrives the next day. When one of their trucks breaks down, they roll with the punches, picking enough corn to fill the other trucks so they can be on their way before Brian leaves to pick up a truck part.
It’s just another day on a family farm, where an unexpected problem can disrupt even the best-laid plans. In the case of their popcorn – much of which was still in the field at the time – the risks are even greater than for yellow corn, Kerry and Brian say: Popcorn is more susceptible to excessive rain and drought, and its moisture level has to be below a certain level at harvest for the processor to accept it. Extreme weather events – such as a 2009 storm that flattened their corn – can damage or destroy an entire crop.
The potential rewards make it all worthwhile, according to Kerry and Brian, who have farmed together for a quarter of a century on either side of the Webster-Hopkins county line. "Popcorn has been good to us.” Brian says. “It's better for raising my family than yellow corn."
The longtime partners are among several western Kentucky farmers who are growing premium popcorn under the Kentucky Proud Popcorn label that will be sold in 88 Kroger supermarkets throughout Kentucky.
The Hornbacks and the Winsteads farm more than 4,000 acres together, raising cattle and soybeans as well as popcorn and yellow corn on land belonging to themselves and more than 40 other landowners.
They were among several popcorn growers in the area starting in the mid-1980s, growing for Cousin Willie’s and Preston Popcorn. By the end of the century, few growers remained, and by 2006, Brian had “about made my mind up” to get out of the business before a seed salesman connected him and Kerry to Preferred Popcorn.
“We are happy to be affiliated with an excellent company that treats its producers like family,” Kerry says.
Kerry and Brian have other family members who live nearby and help on the farm. Kerry’s cousin Mark Winstead is pictured on the Kentucky Proud Popcorn box, and has worked on the farm since he was 13.
Kerry’s and Brian’s families go back to post-Revolutionary days in Kentucky. Mann Winstead came to Kentucky from North Carolina in the late 1700s. Brian’s ancestors on his mother’s side were among the first to settle in Ballard County. Brian was born and raised there before moving to Hopkins County in 1972.
Kerry’s wife, Debbie, works for Independence Bank. They have two daughters: Lora Lee is an attorney, married to a Logan County farmer; and April is a dermatologist and is married to a physician in Lexington. Kerry and Debbie have five grandchildren: Owen, Anna Lee, Kate, Ellie, and Kerry. Their only grandson, Owen, is on the farm every chance that he gets.
Brian’s wife, Stacy, works for the Webster County Cooperative Extension Service. They have two children, twins Ben and Hannah: Ben is a student at Murray State University majoring in Agribusiness Economics, and Hannah is a student at Madisonville Community and Technical College applying to the Physical Therapy Tech program. Both are still active in the farming operation.
The two families have grown, and grown up, together during the 2½ decades Kerry and Brian have farmed together.
“There’s never been a cross word between them,” Debbie Winstead says of Kerry and Brian. “It’s like we’re one big family.”