For Matt Helms, growing things has always been a family affair. For more than 170 years and seven generations, his family has been farming in Belleville, Illinois. While his older brother currently runs the family farm, Helms has never lost interest in agriculture. His day job is at BioGenerator Ventures, which focuses on investment and development of startups in food and agriculture technology. He also used the farm to launch his own company: Ella & Ollie Popcorn.
Growing up, Helms enjoyed the excitement of being in a farming family. “I was the youngest child, so I loved to do things like riding in the tractor cab with my older brother—sometimes, I would fall asleep in the space behind the seat,” he recalls. “I loved playing in the big corn pile and baling hay. Whatever my dad and older brother were doing, I wanted to do, too.”
Helms also spent a lot of time with his maternal grandfather, Oliver, working in his garden, riding along in the truck during harvest or making pies. “Food and cooking were a big thing in our family,” he notes. Sleepovers at his grandparents’ home also were a regular part of his childhood. When he’d stay over, Oliver would make popcorn on the stovetop. “We’d watch Hee Haw and Cardinals baseball,” he says.
“I have such fond memories of those times. It really made me a popcorn lover.”
When it came time to decide on a career, Helms briefly considered becoming a lawyer. However, his passion for plants and horticulture pushed him to pursue a degree in agronomics from the University of Illinois. “After my first agriculture job, I did briefly work as a consultant—having grown up on a farm, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing out on anything,” he notes. “It didn’t take long for me to figure out it wasn’t for me. I just kept going back to what I’m passionate about.”
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs and risk-takers, Helms decided to launch his own business with his wife, Michelle. He also wanted to add to the family farm, offering the next generation an exciting new component to build on. “I want my daughter and nephews to do whatever they want, but if they want to get involved with the farm, I think it’s important to help cultivate that interest,” he explains. “My wife and daughter also love popcorn. We realized no one in the St. Louis area was growing it, so there was a gap that we could fill.”
When naming the business, Helms once again was inspired by his family and its generational connections. Taking his grandfather’s name, Oliver, and his daughter’s middle name, Ella, he and his wife decided upon Ella & Ollie. “We didn’t want to pressure our daughter by putting her first name at the center of the company, but we wanted to tie together the generations that love popcorn,” he explains. “It feels fun and modern, but also has a link to history.”
To launch Ella & Ollie Popcorn, Helms first had to find what variety of popcorn to grow. After internet research and consulting various heirloom popcorn breeders, he and his family held a taste test. “My daughter made a questionnaire for our friends and family to score each variety,” he says. “We found that one was winning in most categories—from size and appearance to taste.” Helms planted two acres of the winning variety, and it became Ella & Ollie’s signature popcorn. The company has since started growing more varieties, including mushroom popcorn, which pops more spherically and contains fewer hulls, and popcorn for movie theaters, which pops bigger and fluffier.
Along with growing more popcorn varieties, Ella & Ollie also expanded its offerings to include olive oils and seasonings. “We worked with another family farm to create the olive oils,” Helms notes. “A lot of people think of popcorn as a guilty pleasure, and it can be if you pair it with butter or coconut oil. However, olive oil is a healthier choice. It was a deliberate decision to provide families a healthy option. Another great thing about popcorn is that it is gluten-free, so it works for people with Celiac disease or other dietary restrictions.”
With the popularity of microwave and pre-popped varieties, it can be easy to forget that popcorn is a type of produce that can be locally grown like other vegetables and fruits. Helms says there can be unexpected benefits to choosing to purchase a local product. “Along with supporting local farmers and boosting the economy, it’s also more sustainable,” he says. “Once people try our popcorn, they often never go back to the microwave stuff. Popcorn is about fun experiences, whether it’s a sporting event or family movie night. What gives us joy is helping others make memorable moments.”