On a hot, humid, August morning recently, Amy Manzulich of Roxboro stood on the edge of a corn plot on the Oxford Research Station, watching her four children pull ears of corn from the stalks. Braving the heat was worth it as they each brought over ears and shucked them to see the kernels on the cob inside – their eyes lighting up with each new discovery. There was chatter about the color of the kernels and whether they were “ripe” enough or dry enough to use for popping corn.
Popcorn was the star attraction for their little field trip. Manzulich and her homeschooled children were some of the dozens who attended the popcorn field plot tour, hosted by Granville & Person County extension agent Gary Cross.
“This is a good visual to see that there are completely different varieties,” Manzulich said as her children pulled and shucked more ears.
Exposing people to different varieties of popcorn was the goal of Cross’s tour. Before the tour moved to Cross’s popcorn field plot, tucked into a corner of the research station land, the first half of the educational event was held in the shadow of the Granville County Extension office. People sat around sampling popcorn snacks as Cross explained some history of popcorn and the many types of popcorn he’s studied over the years.
Jennifer Brown, the family and consumer science agent for Granville & Person County Extension shared some information on the nutritional aspects of popcorn too. Cross even proposed that popcorn growing in North Carolina could present economic opportunities. He encouraged the crowd to start popcorn businesses such as Yadkin Valley Popcorn.
“Nobody’s seemed to want to look at the different aspects of popcorn other than the regular No. 2 yellow that you pop. Well there are other things out here that you can explore,” Cross said. “You can grow it here. There should be more grown.”
Many in the crowd were home gardeners interested in just that. They asked questions about growing and popping characteristics of varieties and which varieties of popcorn could be grown with decent success in North Carolina.
Cross, of course, had answers. Some of the varieties he recommended included the following: Pennsylvania Dutch Butter, white varieties such as White Pearl, Lady Fingers types and earlier maturing varieties out of Brazil and Argentina.
With help from USDA, Cross was even able to give out packets of popcorn seeds for people to take home and try. He said he also got help from station superintendent Thomas Cobb and other NCDA&CS research station staff in preparing the plot for a public visit, not to mention the space the station provided to grow his corn plot. Cross uses the plot to study disease, emergence, ear quality, lodging (stalk breakage below the ears), stock quality, ear color, kernel color, insects and germination.
He said having the plot on a research station helps with that work. He’s worked with farmers to use plots of their land, but farmers aren’t always be able to give up their land at length, and they may not have all the resources that are available on a station.
“It’s a lot easier on a research station because the station lets you work on your own timeframe to get it done, and if I need something [such as equipment] it’s usually available on the station,” Cross said.
Everyone who attended the tour got a packet of information about popcorn to help them learn even more. Since Cross was finished with this year’s plot, he invited attendees to take ears home and plant the kernels for their own popcorn crops next year. Some people left with arms full of ears of multiple varieties.
“I think that they loved the bagged snack popcorn that they got to try and the drinks,” Manzulich said of her children’s experience. “And we’ve got lots of papers to take home. This is a good jumping off point to go and then learn more.”
Cross is hosting another popcorn plot tour in late September. That plot in Roxboro features more than 200 varieties of popcorn from native tribes. The public is invited to that tour on Wednesday, Sept. 29th from 10 a.m. to noon. More information is available through the Granville County Cooperative Extension office.