How is Popcorn Grown and Where Is It Grown?

How is Popcorn Grown?

How is popcorn grown? Popcorn is grown, essentially, like sweet corn or field corn. So if field corn and sweet corn grow in an area, popcorn corn can also be grown in that area.

The major difference among all three types of corn is the ears and, therefore, the kernels growing on those ears. Also, the tassels on sweet corn and field corn stand upright. But the tassels on popcorn plants are quite different—they have floppier tassels.

difference between sweet corn and popcornThe difference between sweet corn and popcorn can be seen in the tassels

The scientific name for popcorn is “zea mays everta.”  

How is popcorn grown? It is grown in large fields like other forms of corn. It is planted in the spring, like other corn crops. A popcorn crop has the same needs as other forms of corn. During the pollination phase in early summer, popcorn crops must have adequate water to grow. For large crops, some sort of pest manage is important. Also, special varieties are grown to give improved popping yield. 

How is popcorn grown? In commercially grown popcorn, the ears are removed from the stalks in the field by a combine machine that removes kernels from the cob at the same time. Usually the husks and stalks are left in the field.

Choosing the right time to harvest popcorn is tricky. It is best to delay harvesting until the corn has cured on the stalk as much as possible, but not so long that it is damaged by fall moisture or by corn stalks falling over. For decades, popcorn has been picked almost exclusively by machines.

conditions needed to grow cornThe right conditions are needed for the corn to grow

The kernels are inspected for contaminants. Then they are sampled and tested for moisture levels, which affects the popping ability. Kernels that pass are then packaged.

Once picked, the corn must be dried until it reaches its optimum moisture level of 13.5% to 14%. Proper air circulation in storage is essential for drying and for prevention of mold and other harmful pests. Through the years, there have been many variations on storing and drying popcorn for future use, from natural air drying to artificial drying with heat, and large-scale crib drying by commercial processors to small-scale drying in wire cloth bags by families for home use.

After the corn has been dried, it is transported to a processing plant where the kernels are shelled from the cob and move through several screens and separators to remove any damaged kernels or debris. Then the kernels are sent through polishing machines to rub off any chaff that may still be clinging to them. After processing, popcorn is packaged in containers. For wholesale use, the kernels are packaged in large bags of 25-, 50-, or 100-pound sizes. Meanwhile, for retail sale, smaller jars, bags or metal containers are used. Microwave popcorn has led to the creation of even more types of packaging.

Harvesting corn by machineToday big farms harvest corn by machine

How is popcorn grown? The first hybrid popcorn for commercial production, Minhybrid 250, was released in 1934 by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. It only grew well along the northern edge of the U.S. corn belt, but was quickly followed by hybrids adapted to the central region of the corn belt. These better adapted hybrids were developed by the Indiana and Kansas Agricultural Experiment Stations in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Bureau of Plant Industry, and were released in the early 1940s.

Where is Popcorn Grown?

Popcorn is grown in the United States throughout the corn belt: traditionally covering western Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, eastern Nebraska, and eastern Kansas. Corn (maize) and soybeans are the dominant crops in this area. The soil is deep, fertile, and rich in organic material and nitrogen. The land is relatively level. The days are hot and the nights are warm nights. Rainfall is well-distributed during the growing season. These conditions are ideal for raising corn--whether it be sweet corn, field corn, or popcorn. Most farms in the area are family operated and average more than 300 acres (120 hectares).

Commercial popcorn is grown in the same states that grow sweet corn and field corn: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri—the states that form the “corn belt.”

Many of the major popcorn brands grow their own popcorn.

Can you grow your own popcorn? The answer is yes.

For information about the top five popcorn producing states, visit the reference website.