Poppin good crop: Nebraska leads nation in popcorn production

By MaryBeth Matzek
MAA Editor

Driving past cornfields in the Midwest, drivers likely realize some crops are earmarked for animal consumption – feed corn – while others are grown for people to eat – sweet corn. But there’s another possibility: the plants are grown for their seeds, which when heated to just the right temperature are the perfect movie-time snack.

Discovered thousands of years ago by Native Americans, popcorn is a special kind of flint corn cultivated by farmers. And we like our popcorn: Americans consume 17 billion quarts of popcorn annually. Nebraska leads the nation in popcorn production, followed by Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and South Dakota.

Overall, most popcorn is raised on smaller farms, with most farmers raising between 100 and 250 acres, according to the National Popcorn Institute.

The major factors that influence popcorn quality are kernel moisture, expansion ratios and popping ratios, said Todd Whitney, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator. High-quality popcorn has a moisture content of 13.5 percent, while popping ratios look at the proportion of kernels that actually pop during the popping process. The expansion ratio refers to the volume of popped corn per gram of unpopped kernels with some varieties expanding to more than 40 cubic centimeters per gram, he said.

Besides having the ability to pop, popcorn varies slightly from other field corn plants. Popcorn plants tend to be a bit smaller and the tassels have a slightly different appearance.

Whitney said all variety of corn plants do well in similar conditions although popcorn seeds germinate more slowly than dent corn.

Located in Clearwater, Neb., Nebraska Popcorn is one farm that specializes not only in growing popcorn, but also processing and packaging. The family-owned business started as a contract grower in 1970 and began producing under the Morrison Farms Popcorn brand in 1985.

Having the ability to process and package the popcorn grown onsite is a big advantage, said Brett Morrison of Nebraska Popcorn.

“We can take a more active role in hybrid testing, selection and development and assisting in the management of the crops as they are grown, helping to ensure quality through proper irrigation, minimizing damage through insect control, and minimizing mechanical damage during the harvesting of the raw popcorn,” he said.

Nebraska Popcorn sells a varied lineup of popcorn products and works to meet clients’ individual needs, Morrison said.

“Our commitments to quality, competitive pricing and great service enable us to be flexible and effectively serve our clients, who have ranged from small — one container per year — to the very largest — multiple shipments per month,” he said.