Popcorn Made Personal
For four generations (so far), two midwestern families have grown a tradition around one of America’s favorite snacks.
Visit the Nebraska farm where your next bowl of popcorn was grown.
In the northeastern corner of Nebraska lies a cornfield of 142 acres. A lot more corn grows around it, but this one is special, because for more than eight decades this particular field has fueled countless movie marathons, game nights—and tree garlands made of popcorn.
Pat Green farms the field for Jolly Time Pop Corn, which is located in Iowa just across the Missouri River. And if Emily Climer, his 9-year-old granddaughter, has any say, the land—and the popcorn contract— will be hers one day.
Pat says his grandfather signed the first contract with C.H. Smith at Jolly Time in the 1930s. He's not sure why his grandfather started growing the tasty snack, but it was the beginning of a relationship that's spanned nearly 80 of the company’s 104 years.
The third generation of Greens is now growing popcorn for the fourth generation of Smiths. Cloid H. Smith founded the American Pop Corn
Co., the maker of Jolly Time, in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1914. Smith grew the popcorn on his farm and hand-shelled the kernels in his basement. The company was then and continues to be owned and operated by the family.
“I remember being a kid and the folks from Jolly Time would come to our house, sit at our table, and just shoot the breeze,” Pat says. He
For more than eight decades this field has fueled countless movie marathons, game nights— and tree garlands made of popcorn.
remembers those conversations could be about anything, not just about the work. They would ask, “How are you doing? How are the kids?” It would start up and continue on naturally, Pat says, as it would with family.
The Smiths still visit and handwrite the checks to their growers— now more than 80 farmers across Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Like his dad, Pat farms the land mostly on his own. From time to time he enlists help from his wife. Daughter Candace and her husband are involved in the fall harvest. And granddaughter Emily also gets in on the fun and rides the combine with her grandfather. This past year was the first she was able to take the wheel herself. She’s already told him she wants to be the fifth generation on these 142 acres to grow popcorn.
“Emily thinks it’s exciting,”
Pat says. And he is proud of that. “It means a lot to me that she has interest in what I’m doing.”
“Papa grows popcorn for Jolly Time,” she delighted in telling her grade school class one National Popcorn Day, which is observed on Jan. 19. Her classmates may not have believed her at the time, but they did the next day when “Papa” Pat came in to share his popcorn with the class.
Pat keeps a popcorn machine in his office in one of the farm’s sheds and offers up fresh, air-popped corn when folks drop by. He likes his with butter and a little salt, but Emily recommends the marshmallow-flavored Mallow Magic microwave kind.
While the name on the mailbox and the destination of the corn kernels haven’t changed, the way the Greens work has. The flat farmland now is lined with irrigation equipment; prior to the mid-’70s they relied on Mother Nature to water their fields. They have always grown yellow popcorn (it pops up bigger and fluffier than white), but not always the same kind. In the beginning, popcorn was mostly grown to feed movie patrons, so before Pat took over, his father filled the fields with a popcorn hybrid designed for theater concessions. The company provides the seed to the Greens and its other
farmers, determining the variety they'll grow, and nowadays Pat’s hybrid is genetically enhanced to pop better in the microwave.
Genetics has also changed the yield per acre. While Pat’s dad grew 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per acre, Pat’s yield today can reach 7,000 pounds per acre.
Pat says he enjoys the freedom of the work—getting up and doing his thing—but that’s not what he likes most. He especially takes pride in knowing he’s providing a service to people.
“We are growing a crop for people to enjoy with their families,” Pat says. He likes that people across the United States are sitting on their couches, watching TV or a movie and eating what he has produced.
He thinks his work plays a part in helping people get away from the stress of everything. “I’m proud I can grow it for them,” he says.
Pat’s father instilled his own love of the work in his son. Pat says his dad never batted an eye when prices varied and popcorn prices dipped compared to other corn prices. Some farmers switched to growing field corn when that happened, but not the Greens.
“My dad said no matter what, we will always grow corn for Jolly Time—doesn’t matter the weather or the price,” Pat says.
Every year he’s worked the farm, Pat has managed to harvest a crop, which he says takes patience. There have been years in which weather has forced him to wait, but he’s never gotten to a point where he can’t get the corn planted. The growing process for a food product also takes patience. Pat has extra sanitizing steps and uses different chemicals than other corn farmers, but he says the work should take time to get it right.
In addition to these 142 acres of popcorn, Pat rents and farms another 500 acres nearby, but he varies what he grows in those fields. He keeps the original farm in popcorn—he’s sentimental that way. He knows his own father was proud when he retired and watched Pat take over the farm, and he says he’ll be just as proud when Emily, a little older, takes the driver’s seat on the combine full time.
Pat Green (above, right) is the third generation on this Nebraska popcorn farm, and Candace and Emily Climer are the fourth and fifth generations.
Popcorn farmers pull the husks on a few ears to check the moisture level of the kernels, ideally about 13.5 percent moisture (right). Here, Pat Green climbs into the combine to start the harvest.
Above, Emily Climer is learning the secrets of popcorn farming from grandpa Pat Green. Below, the two have some more farm fun at the end of a day in the fields.