Baseball games are in full swing, and movie theaters are full. Summer is the primary time for both, and Nebraska plays a major role in the ballpark and cinema experience of fun-seekers world-wide.
“How many times do you go to the movie theater and not buy a bag of popcorn? Or a ball game? It’s a tradition to eat popcorn in several situations. It’s a great food and a healthy food,” said Greg Senkbile, popcorn grower from Merrick County.
Nebraska is the number one state for popcorn production, producing more than 270 million pounds of popcorn each year. Growing popcorn in Nebraska makes sense as popcorn requires a low humidity environment which no other portion of the corn belt can provide. Nebraska also offers high quality soil and consistent moisture, provided by irrigation, which ensure a consistent and uniform sized kernel.
“Popcorn is an alternative crop with food value and gives farmers a different rotation along with an opportunity for income,” said Senkbile, who has been raising popcorn since 1996. “It’s been a great fit.”
Farmers in Nebraska that grow popcorn have increased over the past 15 years due in a large part to the formation of a new company outside of Chapman, Neb., just south of U.S. Highway 30 between Central City and Grand Island – Preferred Popcorn. Preferred Popcorn was formed in 1998 by four area farmers and support of Aurora Cooperative.
There are a few small differences in raising popcorn, it is largely the same as growing field corn although popcorn is a completely different variety of corn.
“The growing cycle is very similar to field corn, and farmers can use the same planters, harvesters and other equipment,” said Norm Krug, CEO of Preferred Popcorn. “Popcorn tends to be a shorter season than field corn, normally planted after and harvested prior between 100 and 105 days.”
Farmers deliver their popcorn kernels to Preferred Popcorn following harvest. As with field corn, farmers are rewarded for the quality of popcorn kernels they produce. The ideal popcorn is between 15 to 17 percent moisture at harvest.
“We gently condition the kernels to the perfect uniform moisture to maximize the popped kernels and minimize the un-popped ones,” said Krug. “We keep the popcorn fresh, the popcorn does not come out of our storage bins until there is an order for it; it is then processed, packaged and shipped within five days.”
Marketing with a Pop
“The primary goal of forming Preferred Popcorn
was to rejuvenate the vacant popcorn plant to add commerce to the area and provide another crop option for farmers to raise,” said Krug.
Preferred Popcorn is well on its way to accomplishing that goal.
“We ship 55 percent of our product internationally and 45 percent of it stays in the U.S. The international trade gave us a chance to get started and build a name,” said Krug. “That's far more than the other major U.S. popcorn companies, which export only about a third of their product.”
Each week, the company ships at least 20 containers, each holding 900 50-pound bags of popcorn, to customers in 59 countries. Overall, 18 million servings the size of a movie-theater popcorn tub leave Chapman on a weekly basis. To put that into perspective, crowds at Husker football, basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball games would consume just one shipment per year.
Although Preferred Popcorn sells microwaveable popcorn, its primary product is bulk corn used in concession stands. International retail giant Target uses it in all of its in-store concession stands.
It is available in a few Nebraska supermarkets and stores – Skagway in Grand Island; Hy-Vee in Grand Island and Omaha; Super Savers in Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha; Russ’s Food Stores in Hastings, Lincoln and Omaha; Central City Mall; Aurora Mall; Aurora Super Foods; GROW Nebraska Stores in Grand Island, Kearney and Norfolk; and Mangelson’s in Omaha.