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Popcorn is a favorite snack food that’s been around for thousands of years. Planting and growing popcorn is very similar to regular field corn and can be harvested by combine with specific settings to reduce kernel damage. The main differences come into play after harvest.
Jay Hulbert is the president and CEO of Ag Alumni Seed in Indiana. He says popcorn can’t be dried with a high heat dryer like regular corn because it reduces popping expansion. Instead, it’s conditioned either by the popcorn company or in the farmer’s bin using ambient air. It’s critical to have the right amount of moisture in the kernel for the pressure buildup and explosion that creates popcorn.
"Most popcorn companies want their farmers to harvest at let’s say, 15%-17%. You don’t want to go too much lower than that because if it’s too dry it doesn’t pop as well," says Hulbert. "If you’re too wet, you run a greater risk of scuffing the pericarp. And a cracked or scuffed pericarp is not going to pop. That’s where a lot of the old maids that you see in popcorn come from."
Popcorn companies contract with growers and buy it from them by the pound. The price per pound is set by the companies.
"Normally, they want to run their contracts so they’re paying a premium over the Chicago Board of Trade price for corn," he says. "They pay a premium in order to encourage that special care and handling that’s going to be required, especially at harvest to get really high-quality popcorn."
Hulbert emphasizes that before you decide to plant popcorn, you need to know exactly where it will be sold after harvest.