Popcorn corn: From a Popcorn Seed to a Pop-ular Snack

U.S. Popcorn

From Seed To Pop-ular Snack
By Lisa Mooney, The Exporter Magazine

Americans consume 58 quarts per man, woman and child each year. Approximately 70 percent of that is purchased at retail stores in both raw and popped form, and eaten at home. The remainder pops up almost any place associated with fun, food and fitness -- movie theaters, sporting events, entertainment arenas, amusement parks, and other recreational centers.

Kids love popcorn because it tastes good and adults favor popcorn for its nutritional value. Consumers enjoy popcorn as a versatile and nutritious snack. It's enjoyed both sweet and savory by fans around the world.  More than 80 percent of the U.S. production is consumed domestically, and the remainder is exported to meet global demand.


Popcorn, like all six types of corn, is a cereal grain and originates from a wild grass. Its scientific name is zea mays everta, and it is the only type of corn to actually pop. Most of the world's popcorn is grown in the United States corn belt of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio. Each spring, farmers use a corn planter to place the popcorn seeds about 11/2 inches deep and 6 inches apart in the soil. That's nearly 28,000 seeds per acre.

Popcorn seed will germinate in approximately seven days and emerges from the soil in 10 days. It is the moisture in the soil, which dissolves important elements for the plant such as nitrogen, phosphate and potash. The popcorn roots absorb this nutrient rich moisture to "feed' the seed and cause it to germinate. When the sun shines on the new leaves, the green chlorophyll in the leaf contains water, which is combined with the carbon dioxide in the air, creating sugar. The plant uses the sugar to build more leaves and roots, and eventually ears of popcorn.  

 Popcorn is mature when the stalk and leaves are brown and dry, the kernel is hard, and a "black layer," easily found by scratching away the tip of the kernel, is formed. This layer signals that the kernel is no longer requiring nutrition from the plant. Popcorn is usually harvested when the kernel has moisture content of 16%-20%. It is this moisture within the kernel which allows the popcorn kernel to pop when heated.

Popcorn can be ear-harvested, where the whole ear of corn is cut and stored for eight-12 months, until the moisture levels in the kernels reach optimum levels. At this point, the kernels are stripped from the cobs and graded to eliminate ones that are too small to pop efficiently.

Popcorn is usually harvested with a combine. This is a machine which has a "corn head" which strips the ear from the stalk. The ear is then fed into the combine. The combine shells the kernels from the cob and ejects the cob out of the back of the machine. The kernels are then loaded into a truck and transported to a storage bin. These bins have a perforated floor and air is forced through the floor to dry the corn to a 14% moisture level - the ideal level for popping corn. Sometimes the popcorn is harvested on the ear with a corn picker, which picks the corn on the cob without removing the kernels. The corn then dries on the cob and kernels are later removed from the ear.

Processing Popcorn

Once the popcorn has dried to the optimum moisture level of 14%, it is then cleaned to remove small pieces of the cob and other plant parts. Popcorn kernels are moved over a screen, which vibrates to separate the kernels from the other particles. Next, popcorn kernels go through a gravity separator, which eliminates lightweight particles such as small kernels. Once the kernels have been cleaned, they are polished, eliminating any final plant material still clinging to the kernel. The kernels are now ready to be packaged for microwave, bag, jar or bulk distribution.


One pioneer in the industry is Preferred Popcorn, located in Chapman, Nebraska. Preferred Popcorn produces top quality popcorn by having its growers' acres located in the heartland of America's fertile, irrigated farmland. Irrigation guarantees the moisture necessary to ensure the availability of consistent quality popcorn.


Once harvest is complete, the popcorn is removed from the storage bins and the second processing phase begins. The kernels are polished and sorted by weight and size. Damaged kernels and any foreign material in the product are discarded. The kernels are then sent through a color-sorting machine, which completes the "premium" process using the most advanced technology available. This high-tech machine views each kernel and determines its quality based on color. The color must be of premium quality for the kernel to be placed into a Preferred Popcorn bag. With their state-of-the-art processing, Preferred Popcorn represents quality in every bag of popcorn.


 Recently I had the opportunity to interview Norm Krug of Preferred Popcorn regarding no tillage farming and its effect on the corn and popcorn industries.

1. What does no tillage farming mean? What are the benefits of no tillage farming?

 No-till farming (sometimes called zero tillage) is a way of growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. No-till is an emergent agricultural technique which can increase the amount of water in the soil and decrease erosion. It may also increase the amount and variety of life in and on the soil but may require increased herbicide usage.

 2.     What impact does no tillage farming have on corn crops?

The good news is that no tillage or minimum tillage does not have a significant impact on the final product.  The reward is the benefits to the soil, the production cost and the environment.

 3.     How has no tillage farming affected or improved your company's corn crops?

No till has reduced compaction in the fields by reducing the number of trips a farmer has to make across the field.  It also reduces the carbon released into the atmosphere, and the amount of petroleum needed to produce a crop. For Preferred Popcorn that means a consistent, high quality product at a reasonable cost.

 4.     What changes do you foresee in your industry as no tillage farming increases?

Most U.S. farmers are moving this direction because it makes economic sense as well as environmental sense.  These are the type of solutions we need to look for because everyone can be a winner.  In my opinion economic driven decisions make more sense than expensive mandatory programs that require higher taxes to operate.  No tillage or minimum tillage rewards the producer, the consumer and the environment.


U.S. Popcorn Board Website

Preferred Popcorn Website