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From the RAGBRAI route to your microwave: Popcorn is a northwest Iowa specialty

  • 28 July, 2022
  • Cecelia Hanley

SCHALLER — RAGBRAI riders who look to the right about 3 miles east of Schaller Monday could see popcorn destined for their microwaves.

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa will be passing through northwest Iowa’s popcorn country for the second year in a row, and Dru Kenny, whose field the riders will be rolling past, hopes they’ll take notice.

“It seems like in today’s world not a lot of people realize where their food’s coming from. Being able to see where it started, and on the shelves, I think is a pretty cool concept,” Kenny said.

Popcorn farmer Dru Kenny in one of his popcorn fields. RAGBRAI riders will pedal past his farm on the second day of the 2022 ride and be treated to bags of popcorn in nearby Schaller, which claims to be the “popcorn capital of the world.”

Sac County: Iowa’s popcorn country 

About 10 farmers in the Schaller area, including Kenny, 27, grow popcorn for Sioux City-based Jolly Time popcorn. They produce 10 to 12 million pounds or 150,000 bushels, each year, said Jeff Naslund, a Jolly Time field manager in Schaller, where the corn is cleaned and processed before being sent to the company’s Sioux City factory. 

Until the mid-1940s Iowa produced more popcorn than any other state, with most production concentrated in the western part of the state, according to Purdue University. At one point about a dozen popcorn companies dotted northwest Iowa, Naslund said. 

“They weren’t just mom-and-pop shops,” Naslund said. “They were 10-, 20 million pound producers.”

Droughts that devastated Iowa’s popcorn crop prompted other states to get into the game. These days, Nebraska Cornhuskers live up to their nickname by producing more popcorn than any other state, using irrigated fields. About 40% of America’s popcorn is grown there, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star.

Iowa’s rank has fallen to ninth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the roughly 8,000 acres of popcorn Iowa produces annually is a microscopic sliver compared to the state’s 13 million-acre conventional corn crop.

But its popcorn legacy endures, especially in Sac County, long the center of Iowa’s popcorn industry. On last year’s ride, RAGBRAI’s first overnight town was the county seat, Sac City, about 20 miles southeast of Schaller. Its claim to fame: the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball, which the town has remade four times over the years, expanding it to keep hold of the title.

Residents hope the current 9,370-pound version, made in 2016, will be the final word in popcorn ball supremacy. It has U.S. Constitution-level security, housed in its own shrine in the center of town, with bulletproof plastic windows.

But Schaller, also in Sac County, is no slouch. It declares itself “the popcorn capital of the world” and hosts the annual Schaller Pop Corn Days Festival each July. Its street signs feature images of popcorn in the familiar red-and-white-striped Jolly Time bags.

RAGBRAI riders pausing there can expect to be presented with those bags, filled with the real thing, courtesy of the chamber of commerce.

And they’re in for a treat. Popcorn grown in western Iowa is often considered to be of higher quality than popcorn grown in Nebraska because it pops better and expands more, Naslund said.

“This is some of the best,” he said.

Popcorn is a temperamental crop

Some of the popcorn RAGBRAI riders consume likely will have originated on Kenny’s farm. On a sunny June day, the plains his fields occupy — a topographical relief for RAGBRAI riders who spent the first day of the ride laboring over the Loess Hills — look like a painting. The green leaves of the popcorn stalks contrast with the clear blue sky.

Beautiful as it is, popcorn is temperamental, said Kenny and his dad, Brian. They can’t use genetically modified seeds and chemical pesticides, common in growing conventional field corn mainly destined for ethanol and livestock feed.

Popcorn also needs some extra room. Kenny plants about 35,000 seeds in his conventional cornfields, but only 30,000 in his popcorn fields.

“It’s not near as durable as commercial corn,” Kenny said, so he plants it in carefully spaced rows “rather than throwing a bunch of seed in here and hope for the best.”

The soil temperature has to be 10 degrees higher at planting than for conventional corn, so popcorn is planted later in the season. It matures around the same time as conventional corn and is harvested in late September or October.

Popcorn leaves do not spread out as much as those on conventional corn, so farmers have to get between the plants and “tear out the weeds,” Kenny said.

“That’s something that we wouldn’t usually have to do when it comes to commercial corn,” Kenny said.

Kenny thrives in niche businesses. He and his dad run a cattle breeding business and recently sold their 1,600-pound bull Kenny Rogers for $135,000, a record price for any studding bull from Iowa. 

Kenny stumbled into popcorn six years ago when he started farming during his senior year at South Dakota State University. His aunt and uncle, who had farmed Jolly Time Popcorn for 30 years, were retiring and Jolly Time contracts are hard to get, so Kenny took their contract and leased their land.

“I was debating on doing it when I started because I didn’t have any knowledge of it,” he said. “I’m glad I have because it’s been a lot of fun.”

Today, popcorn makes up 20% of the acreage he farms.

For all its finicky nature, popcorn offers some advantages. Kenny gets the seed from Jolly Time, so he doesn’t have to buy and store it. And although yields can vary, it’s generally more profitable than conventional corn, Dru and Brian Kenny said. Growing under contract also removes some of the risk.

“Being unique sets you apart from competitors,” Dru Kenny said. “Being in Jolly Time and being in the Angus business, combining the two, makes them very fun, rewarding, powerful and unique to be able to do something different than everyone else is doing.”

From Kenny’s farm to your microwave

Dru and Brian Kenny have never ridden RAGBRAI, but like so many Iowans they’ve been part of what has made it special in the past. When Brian Kenny was in his teens he sold lemonade to riders on RAGBRAI V in 1977.

“That was something,” he said with a smile. “Every time it comes through our direction, we come to the towns close by.”

Dru Kenny sold sweet corn at a stand his 4-H group set up when RAGBRAI last went through Schaller in 2012. This year he plans to watch RAGBRAI, maybe from his popcorn farm or somewhere else.

“It’s kind of a fun thing for small-town communities to be able to be a part of,” he said. “I remember that time there was a guy in a kilt that was riding a bike. It was a really cool experience. ”

With the help of a Des Moines Register reporter and photographer June 23, Kenny named a heifer in his herd Ann, to honor the late wife of RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras.

He said he hopes people will see and remember just a little bit of his hard work as they journey from Ida Grove to Pocahontas.

“I hope they see that we are doing our best job to put a high-quality product on people’s plates,” Kenny said.

Philip Joens is on his 17th RAGBRAI. He has completed the river-to-river trek five times. He covers breaking news, city government and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register and can be reached at 515-443-3347 at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens. 

On the ride this year? Email, call or text me if you have a story to share. 

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