INMAN - It was over a bowl of popcorn on a winter evening last year that McPherson County farmer Dwight Baldwin began thinking of an alternative.
He had recently sifted through one of his latest farm publications, which touted alternative crops. However, like most of his neighbors, he and his son, Adam, have grown wheat, milo, soybeans and corn on their ground near Inman. Yet the farm economy centered around those traditional crops was struggling.
“It got me thinking,” Dwight said from inside his combine on a fall day, circling through a field of milo. “Why doesn’t anyone grow popcorn here?”
While Kansas grows corn - it’s not known for its popcorn. Only 121 acres were dedicated to popcorn in 2012, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.
But Dwight, who admits he hasn’t ever ventured away from conventional crops in his years of farming, was determined. In late spring, he experimented - planting five acres to popcorn. Months later, Dwight and his family have successfully harvested several thousand pounds of popcorn, which are stored on their farm.
An area from central Ohio to eastern Colorado is known as the Popcorn Belt.
It’s a small specialty market. U.S. popcorn production accounts for slightly more than 200,000 acres, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which seems minuscule compared to the more than 90 million acres planted to field corn.
“It’s kind of a unique industry,” said Josh Zangger, who helps run his family’s Zangger Popcorn Hybrids seed business near North Loup, Nebraska. “It’s not a commodity, it is a specialty crop.”
While popcorn, in some fashion, has been around for centuries, its accessibility increased rapidly in the 1890s with Charles Cretors’ invention of the popcorn maker.
But it was during the Great Depression that popcorn’s popularity exploded, said Zangger.
“It was a good snack food sold cheaply, easily stored,” he said. “Really, all you had to do is add oil.”
His family has been growing popcorn since the 1950s and developing hybrids that can be grown in Nebraska since the 1980s.
Today, Nebraska and Indiana are the nation’s top two popcorn producing states. Central and western Nebraska, where Zangger and his family farm, is one of the largest producers of popcorn in the world. Popcorn is not a genetically modified crop, Zangger added.
“There isn’t a lot of players, it is a small industry,” said Zangger of popcorn farming. “But it remains a non-GMO industry which keeps the large companies out and allows farmers like myself to compete.”
The Zanggers are one of five international seed companies in the world - supplying popcorn seed to companies such as Jolly Time and Pop Secret. Those companies contract with commercial growers, who, in turn, grow that seed for production.
But Zangger does sell some seed to individual farmers looking for a niche crop, including Baldwin, who called him with questions this past spring.
“Dwight wanted to experiment, and we get that from other farmers,” he said.
But whether Kansas would ever get a foothold in the popcorn industry is a long shot. Zangger noted that Nebraska’s climate makes it a great place for popcorn, which includes irrigation, cool summer nights and a higher elevation. Kansas has a lower elevation and hotter climate.
“The environmental conditions for growing higher yields and higher quality popcorn, (Kansas) isn’t necessarily built for that,” said Zangger, but added that doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential profit for Kansas farmers. “You see a lot more niche popcorn farmers who have an end product - creating a little popcorn shop.”
A few farmers in northern Kansas are growing their own popcorn and selling it directly to the consumer. Near the Jackson County town of Whiting, Gary and Marian Schlaegel have been growing a little patch of popcorn for family consumption on their dairy farm since 1970. The Schlaegels got out of the dairy business in the 1980s and began planting more acres of popcorn, and Gary would give them to the clients of his tax business, said his grandson, Jacob Yingst, who farms with his grandparents.
Those clients kept telling the family how good the popcorn was. In the 1990s, the family started selling it to grocery stores and customers.
Today they have 20 flavors of both white and yellow popcorn, which they grow on 10 acres.
“Every step of the process is done on the family farm near Whiting,” said Yingst. “We pop it, we package it, we distribute it. Most gourmet popcorn companies buy their popcorn.”
They finished popcorn harvest in mid-October, he said - just in time for the busy season. About 75 percent of their business is around Christmas.
“You are definitely getting a better return on a per acre basis on our popcorn than regular field corn,” said Yingst. “There is a lot more work to it, but it is something we enjoy.”
Baldwin, who grew up in southeast Kansas, recalls a grandfather growing popcorn for family use when he was growing up.
But with the current farm slump, the family was looking for an alternative that could add extra value to their operation.
“We were thinking about farm prices and how low they were and what could we do that is different that might generate a little money for a commodity,” said Cindy Baldwin. “We eat a lot of popcorn, and we started thinking - what would that look like, what would we do with it, how would we market it?
They kept an open mind and began to do their research. Dwight reached out to processors.
“They said popcorn is like other commodities - there is too much of it and they aren’t taking any new contracts,” he said.
But as he began to explore the Kansas-made labels, he realized there could be a niche market locally.
A man with a gourmet popcorn business in Burlingame that is part of the state’s Land of Kansas brand indicated he was wanting to have Kansas-grown popcorn. Others also experienced interest.
“Because it is a locally grown product, I think that helps,” said Baldwin.
They finished harvesting the five acres in late September, said Cindy.
It’s a lot different to harvest than field corn, said Dwight.
“You really have to be careful not to damage the kernel or it won’t pop,” he said.
Also, popcorn is heavier than field corn. Corn weighs 56 pounds, while popcorn can weigh 62 to 65 pounds a bushel. Moisture content is also very important. Dwight’s harvest target was 13.5 to 15 percent moisture.
Popcorn yields less than field corn, but Dwight said he thinks he can make a decent profit.
“We are hoping by the time we get it cleaned and bagged we could sell it for maybe 50 cents a pound,” he said.
For now, the family is finishing fall harvest then will have the popcorn cleaned and bagged in either 50-pound bags or repackaged - depending on who is interested in buying it. If all goes well, they might expand their acreage next year.
“We love it,” said Dwight. “We think it tastes like really good popcorn.”
“I really enjoyed growing it,” he added. “That is the one thing I would say is important. Even when commodity prices are low - and it can be a little depressing, but you can find something that is new and enjoyable.”