There's a blockbuster new food trend growing in Mark and Paul McHargue's Nebraska corn fields. Popcorn, long the leading concession at movie theaters, is undergoing a renaissance.
Sales of bagged, ready-to-eat popcorn are exploding as the snack gets tossed with everything from kale to sassy sriracha hot sauce. Hot buttered popcorn is still coveted by those not so consumed by calories, but it's millennials driving this new burst of popularity, says Deirdre Flynn, executive director of The Popcorn Board, the nonprofit checkoff organization financed by U.S. popcorn processors.
"Ready-to-eat is probably the biggest market entry since microwave popcorn came on the scene some 30 years ago," Flynn says.
The McHargues never imagined they'd grow a crop based on box office receipts, let alone depend on millennials, for market share. However, popcorn adds an important mix to their commodity grain and hog operations, a fact that's especially satisfying given current market conditions.
When everything goes right, it can tack on an additional 15% profit compared to conventional corn, Mark says. "The catch is its higher risk."
While popcorn hybrids have improved, they can be more susceptible to insects and disease since no biotech traits are available. Green snap is the stuff of nightmares. Lodging complicates harvest in a crop that's severely docked for moisture and doesn't fall into the 14 to 17% range. Planter, truck and combine cleanout is critical, because a popcorn sample that contains even a smidgen of No. 2 corn can result in hefty discounts.
Nearly all of the 250,000 acres of commercial popcorn grown in the United States each year is produced under contract. In fact, a contract with a processor is a requirement to qualify for crop insurance. "Working closely with your processor is key to making this specialty crop work," Mark explains.
The McHargues grow for Preferred Popcorn, of Chapman, Nebraska. The hybrids they grow and even some agronomic practices, such as forgoing neonicotinoid seed treatments because of pollinator concerns, are part of their agreement.
"We really like the fact that popcorn tends to work well in fields that don't drain well," he adds. "We strategically grow it on poorer soils to make those poorer acres perform comparable to good-yielding commodity corn.
"Still, this is a food-grade business with very exacting standards that requires very specific management. As a specialty grower, that's both the challenge and the opportunity," Mark says.
Nebraska leads the nation in popcorn acres, producing more than 350 million pounds annually. Access to irrigation pushes production toward the Husker state, but other environmental factors favor it, too.
Chuck Zangger's family firm, Zangger Popcorn Hybrids, started developing new popcorn lines near North Loup, Nebraska, in the early 1980s. He says popcorn takes a lot more photosynthetic energy to produce a crop than dent corn. "Popcorn needs warm (90 to 95 degrees F), sunny days with low humidity and nights that drop to 60 degrees F during the last 30 days of maturation," Zangger says. "Regions that produce good wine also tend to grow good popcorn."
Western Nebraska is popcorn's "Napa Valley" because yields here sometimes average 1,000 pounds per acre more than other popcorn-growing regions of the Midwest. Overall U.S. popcorn yields have nearly doubled during the last 30 years, Zangger explains, and in good years under good management, now average from 6,000 to 7,000 pounds per acre. "We used to feel good if we could get 7 ears to the pound, and now it's 3 to 4 ears to the pound shelled," he says.
Genetic advancements have improved overall plant health, stalk strength and added native resistance to important leaf diseases, such as Goss's wilt. The visual giveaway on popcorn is a big floppy tassel.
Popcorn is complicated, and advances come slower because there are more kernel factors to consider, Zangger says. Increasing yield often means a bigger ear, which needs more air around it to dry to the right moisture. Loosening the husk might help with that drying, but the ear also needs to be protected against insects since GMO traits are not an option. Fine-tuning by introducing characteristics from dent and flint inbreds can take years of breeding selection.
Fine-tuning also includes the kernel. Take the flake, the industry term for the popped kernel. Butterfly flakes stick out all over the place, and mushroom flakes are round, firm and ideal for coating with caramel and other toppings. "The mushroom was a specific trait we had to select for within inbred lines," Zangger says. "It's the way the kernel is shaped inside that makes the difference.
"The very first ball [mushroom] hybrid was long seasoned and only yielded about 4,000 pounds per acre," he recalls. "We now have a 98-day hybrid that will yield 7,000 to 8,000 pounds."
Around 212 degrees F, trapped water in the endosperm turns to steam and changes the starch inside each kernel into hot, gelatinous goo. As the kernel continues to heat, the exterior pericarp ruptures, and the soft starch inside spills out to solidify into the edible product we munch away on. Mushroom popcorn expands evenly, while the starch inside the butterfly popcorn erupts willy-nilly from wherever the kernel skin breaks.
Growing popcorn is all about keeping this explosive capability intact, and that influences field practices. Most of the hybrids are 95- to 100-day relative maturity. "It's shorter season, so we plant it after field corn and harvest it before," Mark says. "It has to dry in the field, and the moisture range is very narrow. When popcorn is ready, everything else shuts down, and that's all we do."
The agronomic practices to grow popcorn aren't much different than regular corn. It needs a tad less nitrogen, and seed costs are a bit lower. Irrigation needs are similar. A more open canopy puts a priority on residual herbicides. Morningglory is the worst problem, since it pulls down the plant and seems able to escape even mechanical cultivation, Mark says.
They strip-till, plant in twin rows and throw up a final ridge with a Hiniker cultivator. "Our water table is high in the spring, so the ridge allows us to plant in dry soil and during harvest, lets us run the combine snouts lower. One out of four years, we have at least part of our crop go down," he adds. The overall popcorn root system isn't as hardy; rootworm and wind are threats.
Popcorn ears are often long and skinny, making combine adjustments critical. "You have to pull in the concaves tight to get it off the cob, but not too tight," Mark says. The processor checks every load for cracks to the pericarp.
When popcorn growers talk about expansion, they probably don't mean adding acres, he says. Expansion rate measures the number of popped popcorn servings produced from a specific amount of unpopped popcorn. A typical expansion rate would be 42 to 44. This means 1 cup of popcorn kernels in the popper will yield 42 cups of popped corn.
A 1-pound bag of popcorn yields about 20 servings (3 to 4 cups per serving). The 345 acres of popcorn grown on McHargue's acres will produce approximately 2 million pounds, or 40 million servings, of yellow popcorn in an average year.
Chew on that the next time you buy popcorn at the theater.
Pam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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