Minnesota farmers test market for locally-grown popcorn
Two Dudes Popcorn is now available for purchase.
HERON LAKE, Minnesota — A couple of local farmers are now in the midst of marketing the fruits of their labor — or rather the seeds from their harvest.
Zach Schumacher and Isaac Fest harvested two plots, totaling one and a half acres, of popcorn on Halloween, and began the packaging and labeling process last week for their locally-grown product — Two Dudes Popcorn.
“Around here, it’s corn and soybeans. I was just kind of thinking about something that was pretty easy to harvest and pretty similar to the practices of a normal corn field,” Fest said of his idea to grow popcorn. He broached the idea with Schumacher, a friend and fellow grad of Heron Lake-Okabena High School, and the two quickly put the plan into motion. “We wanted to try something different — something unique — that we could share with the community.”
Their Two Dudes Popcorn products include 2-pound bags of popcorn; 8-ounce bags of popcorn sealed with 2 ounces of flavored coconut oil; and 50-pound bags of popcorn for commercial use. The Heron Lake-Okabena High School made a commercial-sized purchase and now offers Two Dudes popped popcorn at its home sports games, while the HL-O FCCLA chapter will be selling the popcorn as a fundraiser.
Locally, the popcorn is sold at Hers & Mine Boutique, 922 Fifth Ave., in downtown Worthington, or can be ordered directly from Two Dudes Popcorn on Facebook.
The secret revealed
Fest purchased the popcorn seed last spring while on a business trip to Indiana. Based on Minnesota’s growing season, a 107-day relative maturity variety was selected.
“That’s about the max we can get for this area,” said Schumacher.
“Especially to get down to the moisture level we needed,” added Fest.
The two planted their crop the first week of May on two different plots — one with sandy soil near the Des Moines River, and the other with heavier soil.
“We learned a lot by doing it in two different places,” Schumacher said.
From the beginning, the farmers tried to keep their venture “on the down low.”
“We didn’t want to be embarrassed if we failed,” Schumacher said with a laugh.
And, since the crop looks identical to field corn, they could keep the secret for a while.
“You could tell, once word got out, there were a few more looky-loos driving around,” he added.
Some farmers even stopped by to ask how the crop was doing.
“There’s a lot of interest in it now,” Fest said.
Venturing into popcorn production has certainly been a learning experience, they are quick to note.
“We thought the hard part was growing it and harvesting, but that was easy,” Schumacher said. “Getting the moisture level perfect, getting it harvested on the small scale, prepping and cleaning the popcorn and getting it to food grade is a lot more work than you might think.”
There were times — particularly during the mid-season drought — where they thought they might not have a crop. In addition to the lack of rain, they also had initial concerns about weed control because they wouldn’t be able to spray the crop. As it turned out, once the corn reached canopy, the weeds were kept to a minimum.
Then, as harvest neared, it was a matter of waiting for the crop to reach optimum moisture content.
“Popcorn is really particular on the moisture level it needs,” Schumacher said. “We were trying to get it to dry to the moisture level in the field, but we just ran out of time.”
Fest’s dad harvested the two plots with his combine on Halloween, needing only to change some settings on the corn head to make it work.
Since the moisture level was too high, Schumacher said they used an old style screw-in fan on a large box to run warm air through the crop of yellow popcorn.
Two weeks later — after the popcorn reached ideal moisture level — the farmers hired a South Dakota-based company to clean the seed and remove any material such as husk pieces or silk that may have accompanied the seed through the combine. The company had machines that also sorted the seed, ensuring the final, marketable product was uniform in size and color.
After the cleaning process, the crop was brought back to Heron Lake, where the farmers and their families are doing their own packaging.
Their first packing event, which included several friends, took place on Dec. 5, with 300 bags of popcorn ready to be offered for sale.
Of course, they also had to taste-test and ensure premium pop-ability of the popcorn while they worked.
Testing the market
While the farmers said they can get seed easily enough, they aren’t sure how many acres will be devoted to the crop in the future.
“It will be more based on what our sales are,” Schumacher said. “It’s a lot more manual labor than we anticipated.
“Overall, we’ve had fun doing it and it’s fun to hang out with friends and family,” he added.
The farmers are hoping for feedback on the product — including if people have an interest in white popcorn versus yellow.
Either can be grown here, Fest shared.
“When you’re looking at popcorn, you’re looking at yield and a kernel that’s going to expand really well,” he said, noting that popcorn production is based on pounds per acre, rather than bushels per acre.
They didn’t want to reveal production numbers, but did say the crop planted in heavier soil fared better than that planted in sandy soil.
Fest’s wife, Kailey, came up with their product name and designed the logo that’s attached to each bag of popcorn. It features two guys sitting in lawn chairs and munching on popcorn, one clad in a Sota T-shirt and the other in a State T-shirt. The shirts are a nod to their college days. Schumacher is a University of Minnesota graduate with a degree in ag industries and marketing, with a minor in horticulture and ag and food business management; Fest is a South Dakota State University graduate with a degree in agronomy.
Schumacher works full-time with his family’s berry farm and wholesale tree nursery near Heron Lake, while Fest farms with his dad, works for his father-in-law’s tiling company and started a seed business with Beck’s Superior Hybrids.