Valley Bounty: Popcorn

Aaron Stevens harvested his popcorn fields at the end of November. “The corn grew really well, and the kernels looked really good,” he explained during a recent conversation. The 2019 season had the three necessities of growing corn: heat, humidity, and moisture. “We had a wet spring but after we got past that it kind of turned into a drought. But not dry enough so that the corn suffered,” Stevens said.

Aaron Stevens owns Pioneer Valley Popcorn in Colrain with his wife Kim Stevens and his in-laws Chip and Sherry Hager. The idea of growing popcorn arose when the family stopped milking cows in 2015. They thought “well, this would be a good use of some of the corn fields we used to use to feed the cows,” Stevens explained. “It’s been a learning process because it’s not like growing corn for cows. Corn for cows you get it in the ground then later you chop it off the fields and that’s it.” When harvesting the corn for the dairy farm, Stevens was able to use a combine. Combines are efficient machines that pick the ears of corn and thresh the kernels from the cob as the farmer drives through the field. But popcorn must be handled much more deliberately than other types of grain corn, because if the kernels are damaged, they won’t pop.

To ensure that Pioneer Valley Popcorn kernels will, in fact, pop, Stevens carefully manages their harvest process. Weather allowing, he likes to leave the corn out in the field as long as possible. During harvest season, Stevens regularly checks the crop with a grain moisture tester. The goal is for the moisture levels to fall to 18-20% before harvest. When the crop is ready, Stevens brings his corn picker out into the field. “The picker pulls the plant to the ground,” he explained. “As it does that, it pops the ear out.” The ear of corn falls onto a conveyor belt, which runs it through a dehusker. The dehusker removes the outer husk but leaves the kernels on the cob.

Stevens then puts the corn harvest into storage to allow its moisture level to continue to drop. It will take months for the recent harvest’s moisture level to hit the target of below 16%. But Stevens explained that the time in storage doesn’t negatively impact the taste of the kernels. “The freshness isn’t always about if it just came out of the field. It’s more about how recently it came off that cobb. Because as long as it stays on the cob, it retains the taste.”

When the levels are correct, likely sometime in the spring, Stevens will shell the corn. Shelling is the process of removing the kernels from the cob and is done with its own specialized machine. A conveyor belt feeds the ears of corn into a large drum. Inside the drum, “there’s a bunch of thick, steel paddles that spin really fast. They beat the corn so the debris goes out one way, and then the kernels end up in our containers in a different area.” For the final step of cleaning, the kernels run across a fine screen with a strong fan underneath it. The fan blows the light debris away from the heavier kernels as they drop into bins below.

Stevens just recently shelled a batch of last year’s harvest, so there’s plenty of fresh popcorn to go around. Popcorn grown locally can be prepared just like any type of popcorn. You can throw it in a paper bag and pop it in the microwave. But Stevens prefers to cook his popcorn on the stovetop. He puts some vegetable or coconut oil in a pot (not butter because it might burn.) Once the oil is heated up, he throws in his kernels, covers the pot, and steadily shakes it as the popcorn pops. When it’s ready, “I like old fashioned butter and salt,” he said with a laugh. But if you want to change things up, Stevens recommends sprinkling on some cheddar cheese. A savory snack for a cold December evening.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)