By Kim Baldwin, CommonGround Kansas farmer volunteer
Originally a native of New Mexico, Kim is a teacher and has worked as a television news professional for PBS and NBC affiliates. Kim moved to Kansas to marry her husband, Adam, in 2010. With their two children, the family raises wheat, corn, popcorn, soybeans, grain sorghum and cattle.
This year, our family farm ventured into a new crop for us: popcorn. In a typical year, our farm will raise field corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum. Yes, we have experience growing field corn, but popcorn is quite a different crop. Field corn is primarily used as livestock feed. On the other hand, popcorn is ready for movie night (almost) the moment it leaves the field.
As farmers, we experiment with different seed varieties and growing techniques all time. Yet, planting a different crop takes a lot of research, patience and practice.
Kernel of an idea
The idea to grow popcorn began when my father-in-law read an article about specialty crops. Our farm has been looking to diversify to help provide additional income.
Right now, prices for our standard set of crops is low. For these commodities, farmers can either accept the market’s cash price, or we can hold the crop in storage and hope the price improves with time. To do this, we typically risk degradation of the product’s quality and incur storage fees. There are also options to hedge our sale price on the futures market, but commodities prices have been depressed for some time now.
Before putting a single popcorn seed in the ground, we read research and even visited with popcorn farms in other states. We had to make sure our existing equipment would work for popcorn, and not all of our fields would be well suited to grow it.
We decided to plant about 5 acres to popcorn. The field that would work best for popcorn would be ground we rent with access to irrigation. Before planting, we had to seek the landlord’s approval to try a new crop, which would be a risk for both of us. In many cases, the landowner and the farmer share profits.
Off to a popping start
Growing a crop like popcorn takes different management — even farmers need practice! The environmental conditions in Kansas aren’t ideal for growing popcorn, so we have to be sure we selected the right type for our climate. Next, the crop must work with our whole farm.
For example, the popcorn field is non-GMO but is bordered by other crops like GMO field corn and GMO soybeans. Our use of precision agriculture technologies allows us to precisely target the applications, and helps keep our non-GMO and GMO crops distinct.
Once harvested, we had to make sure our corn would pop. To do this, we plucked an ear right out of the field, put it in a paper bag and turned on the microwave. We had a bowl of popcorn in just a few minutes, which was exciting and quite a relief after watching the crop grow for so many weeks.
Our family has always enjoyed popcorn as a snack, and we’re excited to be growing it too. The process to try, and succeed, with a new crop can be a frightening business decision. I have new respect for the people behind one of my favorite snacks. I hope you’ll think of our family next time you’re grabbing a bag of popcorn — whether it’s at a grocery store or a locally grown flavor at your farmer’s market.