May 13, 2021

Cornering the market: Local youth combine farming and fundraising with popcorn business

AMBOY, Ill. — When it comes to a new breakthrough program that will offer local students the opportunity to earn free tuition through community service, it’s fitting that the first donation toward that program’s endowment came from young people.

“These are young kids, who grow their own popcorn. They gave to our Impact Program, so these youth are investing in themselves and their friends,” said Dr. Linda Cortez, dean of institutional advancement at Sauk Valley Community College.

It’s also worthy to note that donating to local organizations that help youth is the thing that Natalie Pratt, 13, says is one of the best things about the business, Bubba Bug Popcorn, that she and her older brother, Ethan, started eight years ago.

And, yes, that would make Natalie just 5 and Ethan 7 when they came up with the idea.

“We wanted to start a lemonade stand on our road to make some money for things we wanted. But living on a country road, it was obviously not going to work,” Natalie said.

About to graduate from eighth grade at Amboy Junior High School, Natalie’s years of public speaking as a 4-H project have made her an accomplished spokesperson for the business. It’s a task that Ethan has always been happy to leave to his sister, said their mom, Katie.

Their parents, Andy and Katie Pratt, farm with Andy’s family and raise corn and soybeans. So, Natalie and Ethan decided to follow their family’s business — with a slight adjustment.

“We wanted to do something more creative than corn and beans, so we decided to do popcorn,” Natalie said.

A few rows of popcorn that the two planted, watered and cared for, then harvested and packaged themselves, with minimal assistance from their parents, has grown to an acre of popcorn.

“Those two took it on. This was and is their job, from dragging the hose out to water it to the shelling, the cleaning the packaging. All of that has been their thing,” Katie said.

Ethan, now 16, is farming with his father, so the popcorn business is “more of a Natalie thing now,” Natalie said.

“We will probably plant within the next few weeks. We do that by hand,” she said.

Ethan will help out with the planting, but nowadays the rest is up to Natalie.

Pop Pop Hurray

The name, Bubba Bug Popcorn, came from their nicknames when they were younger. Ethan was “Bubba,” and Natalie was called “Nattie Bug,” by Katie and Andy, and Andy suggested a combo of the two nicknames as a good name for the company.

The company’s motto, which is included on the logo on their popcorn bags, is: “Dad picked the name, we picked the corn.”

The company has a website, bubbabugpopcorn.com, and sales go until the year’s crop is sold out.

As with the corn and soybeans that their parents and family raise, there are good years and not-so-good years for popcorn.

“It varies from year to year, the last couple years have not been great and it’s been about three years since we’ve had a really good crop,” Natalie said.

Harvest happens later in the fall, usually in October, so the popcorn can have additional drying time on the stalk. After the harvest, Natalie shells the corn, dries it further if needed via a screen and a fan, then cleans, sorts and packages the harvest.

When the corn is ready for sale, she will refresh the business’s website, list the different varieties at bubbabugpopcorn.com and get ready to sell.

“We are now an international company, we have shipped popcorn to Canada and to Germany and we’ve added different varieties,” Natalie said.

Help For Others

One of the other harvests from each year’s popcorn crop has been the donations to local community groups. That came about after Natalie and Ethan found out about an event known as Giving Tuesday.

Giving Tuesday happens the Tuesday following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the two major winter holiday shopping sprees. It is an opportunity for companies and brands to share their profits with charity.

“Everybody has spent their money on stuff from stores and on Amazon and online shopping, so now it’s time to spend some of your money and donate to something. We found out about it and we hopped on the Giving Tuesday train. We picked part of our profits from our sales on Giving Tuesday and donated to local organizations,” Natalie said.

The first donation was to Teen Turf Youth Center in Amboy.

The donation to the Impact Program at Sauk came about after Natalie and Ethan heard their mom, who was on a steering committee for the new program, talking about the program and how it could benefit local students.

“Bubba Bug Popcorn was proudly the first donor for the Impact Program. We heard about it from Mom and we thought it was really cool. We’ve been blessed with opportunities, but living in small-town and rural Illinois, we know a lot of kids who probably don’t have those opportunities. So, we thought it was a really good idea to put money toward something that we know our friends will use and that we could use. I think it’s really cool that we got to give to that program,” Natalie said.

Another donation, the most recent, is also near and dear to Natalie’s heart. It was the first donation that she chose on her own, as Ethan stepped away from the day-to-day operations of the popcorn business.

“I am in band and choir and I love theater,” said Natalie, who plays the oboe. “Our marching band has gotten bigger and people come to the football games to see the marching band and the pep band and it’s amazing, but we need new uniforms. I did my Giving Tuesday last year and I gave it to the Amboy High School music department for new marching band uniforms,” Natalie said.

Connecting Points

In addition to being able to do good, the popcorn business has provided Natalie with opportunities to share her enthusiasm for growing and selling popcorn.

She was invited by a grade school in La Salle County to make a presentation about growing and selling popcorn and she also helped a student in California, who contacted her via mom Katie’s blog and Facebook page, with a science fair experiment on growing popcorn.

“The popcorn business has opened up a lot of opportunities for me,” Natalie said.

One of those opportunities came when Natalie was invited to meet First Lady Dr. Jill Biden at Sauk on April 19.

“It was amazing. It was like a dream,” Natalie said.

In fact, the invitation left her speechless.

“I had a speech competition the day we learned we were going to go and I forgot my speech. I was halfway through my speech and I blanked — and I knew why. I was thinking about meeting the first lady of the United States and it was incredible,” Natalie said.

Natalie and Katie were in the group photo with the first lady and Natalie shared a socially-distanced elbow bump with Dr. Miguel Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education.

An Amboy High School alumna and current student trustee on the SVCC board, Abril Vazquez-Tapia, introduced Biden, who talked about the benefits of the College Promise Program and the Impact Program.

“The first lady said hi to me and I said hi to her. It was absolutely incredible,” Natalie said.

Katie joked that she was invited — as Natalie’s guest.

“The atmosphere at Sauk was just so full of excitement, like Christmastime,” Katie said.

As for Bubba Bug Popcorn’s future, Natalie said she will have to decide what to do with the business. She will be a freshman at Amboy High School this fall and plans to continue to be active in band and choir, as well as sports.

“If I’m going to do it, I know I’m going to have to put in the time and the effort to make it the same as it’s always been and even better and not let it go and become a horrible business just because I decide I want to play softball,” Natalie said.

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor