By Branson Inscore
John McEntire is not your average farmer.
He grows corn that only produces one ear per stalk, and he prefers to do it this way.
McEntire’s crop is known as Crooked Creek Corn, an heirloom variety that his family has grown on their farm near Old Fort, NC since the 1800’s. And, as far as we know, he’s the only farmer still growing it.
What classifies a crop as an heirloom? Generally speaking, heirlooms are unprocessed and non-genetically modified varieties. They are sustained from growing season to growing season by retaining seed from the previous year’s crop and grow each year by open-pollination – a pollination practice occurring naturally with the aid of wind, insects, and birds. As a result, they must be planted away from modern crops to preserve their genetic integrity and avoid cross-pollination.
Crooked Creek Corn is visually distinctive, known for its white dent kernels on a long, white cobb. The kernels are often stone ground – using traditional milling processes in which kernels are turned to meal with two mechanical grinding stones, rather than modern metal rollers which remove the corn’s hull and germ – to make grits and, also, corn whiskey.
As large-scale agriculture has become more and more prevalent throughout the nation, also developing genetically modified corns for higher crop yields, heirlooms have become increasingly rare. But farmers like McEntire are committed to keeping heirlooms in the food supply, and make their living doing so.
“The challenge in growing these heirlooms is that the yield is much, much less than some of the genetically modified [crops],” said McEntire. “I’m hearing of acreage yields of 200 or 250 bushels per acre. And these heirlooms don’t do that whatsoever. On an absolute good year, on this Crooked Creek Corn, I might get 75 bushels per acre, but typically, it would be between 45 and 60.”
To make up the difference, farmers like McEntire look to other sectors of the agriculture market. “What you have to do is look at value-added in every way you can,” says McEntire. To create this additional value, he runs two stone grinding mills, grinds his corn into grits, and sells his products directly to upper-end restaurants.
One day, Mr. McEntire got a call from Troy Ball, who wanted to buy 100 pounds of cornmeal. He bagged the meal and prepared it for pick up.
“When she drove in here [to the McEntire farm], and she drove in a white Mercedes, and a blonde-headed, good-looking woman, I couldn’t figure – what in the world is she wanting corn for? Because she didn’t tell me,” said McEntire. “But we got to talking… and she said she wanted to make some moonshine.”
This conversation began a years-long partnership.
Ball began experimenting with distilling Crooked Creek Corn and continued to consult with McEntire. She found that the corn made excellent whiskey.
Wanting to find out more about the variety, she took a sample to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for analysis. The results were astounding.
“I showed up with my dried corn on the cobb and he took the corn, stripped it off the cobb, dropped it into this machine that analyzed it… and he goes, ‘this can’t be right… do you have another ear of corn?” said Ball. “He runs it into the machine again and he said, ‘well that’s pretty amazing… this is the highest fat content corn I’ve ever seen… without a doubt this is a true heirloom corn.’”
Ball set out to build a whiskey brand around heirloom grains and founded Asheville Distilling Company in 2010.
Today, her distillery produces five different whiskies, all made from grains grown by McEntire, including his Crooked Creek Corn and Red Turkey Wheat, and her business is thriving.
It wasn’t always this way, however. For the first five years she was in business, Ball was unable to sell whiskey directly to her customers due to state alcohol regulations.
It almost killed the business.
Originally, distilled spirits could only be bought, legally, in North Carolina at ABC stores. Regulations were relaxed throughout the 2010’s. And, as of September 2019, with the passage of NC Senate Bill 290, distilleries may sell unlimited amounts of alcohol directly to the consumer and sell mixed drinks in their distillery tasting rooms, making it much easier to interact with customers and market a brand through a comprehensive distillery experience.
In speaking with both McEntire and Ball, it was evident that they share certain qualities which enable their entrepreneurial success – they’re intelligent, passionate, persistent, and industrious individuals.
Along with his devotion to farming, McEntire is a graduate of Appalachian State University, holding a degree in chemistry and mathematics. He has been a teacher, sawmill owner and operator, and beekeeper. For a time, he raised heritage-breed mule-foot hogs, supplying meat to local boutique restaurants – another project he and Ball pursued together.
And along with being the first woman to own a distillery since Prohibition, Ball has earned a business degree from Vanderbilt University, won three gold medals in National Horse Show competitions, and written and published a book about raising her three sons, two of which have special-needs. She is also currently pursuing the development of an all-natural, anti-aging brain supplement.
No matter what Ball or McEntire pursues, each seem to radiate an entrepreneurial spirit. They know things are risky in the business world but feel it’s worth the struggle.
When starting a business, “you’re betting the farm and there’s no backup,” says Ball. “I approach everything with a lot of passion. You know, if I get interested, I’m all in. And I don’t hesitate, ever, to learn from somebody who knows more than me.”
McEntire sees that his work has positive influence on the social aspects of his community and state and says that makes his work all the more meaningful.
“People truly do appreciate seeing and knowing that I’m growing heirlooms and caring for the good earth,” said McEntire. “I guess, philosophically, I could say certainly I enjoy getting out and plowing corn and seeing it grow, but interacting with people, as it pertains to this project, is very valuable to me.”
“Interacting with people” and “betting the farm” – perhaps that is what entrepreneurship is really all about.
Branson Inscore is the John Blundell Fellow at the John William Pope Foundation