Few foods are as celebrated in American culture as hot, buttery popcorn. It’s a treat we enjoy at home, sporting events, fairs and movie theaters. But did you know the popcorn your family enjoys, regardless of where you are, may have been grown on a farm in Nebraska?
Nebraska is the No. 1 producer of popcorn in the United States, and farmers in 30 Nebraska counties grow more than 300 million pounds of it annually. The National Popcorn Institute estimates Americans eat 17 billion quarts of popped popcorn each year, with the average American consuming about 58 quarts.
Popcorn vs. Field Corn
Brandon Hunnicutt of Giltner in Hamilton County raises popcorn, field corn and soybeans with his father, Daryl, and brother, Zach, on land his family has owned for more than 100 years. They plant popcorn in late April or early May, and harvest in late September or early October.
“Our family has been raising popcorn for as long as I can remember,” Hunnicutt says. We had a field that worked great for popcorn because it had limited water but really good growing capabilities.”
The growing process for popcorn and regular corn is similar. In fact, most people may not be able to tell the two plants apart.
“The plants look almost identical, only the tassels on the popcorn plant tend to have more branches on them,” Hunnicutt says. “The popcorn plant won’t necessarily get as tall as a regular corn plant. The ears are different in that the kernels on the popcorn ear are what you see in a bag that is unpopped. The kernels are smaller, the tip is more pointed and the top is more rounded.”
Another key difference comes at harvest time.
“With yellow corn (field corn), we can pick it when the moisture content is 20 percent or higher and run it through a grain dryer to get it down to the desired moisture,” Hunnicutt explains. “But with popcorn, the processor does not want us to harvest it above 17 percent moisture. Also, we cannot run popcorn through a grain dryer, so we allow it to dry naturally out in the field.”
Regular corn (or field corn) and popcorn also have different uses. In Nebraska, there are roughly 9.3 million acres of field corn grown and most is used for livestock feed and ethanol production. Popcorn, grown on approximately 67,000 acres in Nebraska, is a food crop.
Once harvested, Hunnicutt’s popcorn is taken to one of Nebraska’s major processors, Preferred Popcorn LLC in Chapman, located in Merrick County in the Platte River Valley. Nebraska Popcorn, Inc. in Clearwater, Antelope County, is another major popcorn processor in the state, which is also home to a handful of smaller processors.
At the Preferred Popcorn plant, the popcorn is processed and packaged in bulk varieties and microwave popcorn in several flavors. About half of Preferred Popcorn’s products are sold domestically. The rest is exported to 70 countries across the globe. Their largest buyers include Mexico, Canada and China.
Norm Krug, Preferred Popcorn chief executive officer, organized the company in 1998 after raising popcorn most of his life. It is now one of the top popcorn suppliers in the United States. About 100 growers in six states raise popcorn for Preferred Popcorn.
“We take a natural Nebraska-raised product and add value to it by conditioning it, or getting it to the correct moisture, cleaning and processing it, and finally packaging and marketing it,” Krug says.
“Nebraska is ideal for popcorn because of its great climate and irrigation,” he says.
One of the best parts about Krug’s job is the opportunity to make friends all over the world.
“I went from being on a tractor a lot of hours to being on an airplane a lot of hours,” Krug says, chuckling. “Popcorn is a healthy snack associated with fun and family time. It’s quite rewarding as a farmer to have customers all over the world who appreciate the high quality of our products.”