Input savings and premiums make popcorn an appealing crop to some farmers
When the opportunity to earn a premium and diversify crop acres popped up, western Nebraska farmer Eldon Dyck decided to give popcorn a try. Twenty six years later, the crop continues to be a staple in his rotation.
Dyck works closely with processors to determine how many acres and what type of popcorn he needs to plant each year. Based on demand, processors decide how many acres they need of butterfly- or mushroom-shaped popped kernels. Butterfly popcorn is found in movie theaters, and mushroom is typically sugar or caramel coated.
“We might sell more mushroom than the average company—40% mushroom and 60% butterfly,” says Charles Zangger, owner and plant breeder at Zangger Popcorn Hybrids. “I would say 20% in the U.S. is mushroom.”
When Zangger breeds popcorn hybrids his initial focus is on agronomic characteristics for the farmer.
“The farmer is concerned about yield first,” Zangger says. “In Nebraska, 120 bu. per acre popcorn yield is really good—it compares to 220 bu. or 250 bu. per acre field corn.”
When analyzing varieties, Zangger has 27 different selection criteria such as standability, height of 7.5' or less, healthy leaf structure and ears on the sixth or seventh node on flex hybrids. Popcorn hybrids are all non-GMO.
He also pops every hybrid he breeds to test popping quality, count hulls and determine popped kernel shape.
At about two-thirds the size of field corn, farmers can save on certain inputs. “Popcorn takes less nitrogen and a little less water than regular corn,” Dyck says. However, he spends a little more on herbicide.
Farmers still need to scout to make sure popcorn has the nitrogen and water it needs as weather variations could require adjustment. Because popcorn hybrids are non-GMO, scouting fields also helps manage weed, disease and pest pressure.
Dyck communicates with neighbors where popcorn acres are located to mitigate herbicide drift risks. To avoid mixing with other crops, he must thoroughly clean planting and harvesting equipment and store popcorn in separate grain bins.
Despite some of the extra attention popcorn merits, the premium makes popcorn production attractive.
“A popcorn farmer makes about 20%, or $100 to $300, more per acre than field corn,” Zangger says. This is due to a combination of factors, he adds, including cheaper seed, fewer inputs and higher end prices.
“I’ve found it’s a good crop to have to diversify crop rotation and marketing,” Dyck says. “And, well, we really like popcorn.”
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