Look what’s popping — it’s popcorn

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  • Aaron Stevens, co-owner of Pioneer Valley Popcorn, visits the field in Colrain to test the moisture content of the corn and determine when it will be ready for harvesting on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, co-owner of Pioneer Valley Popcorn, pulls an ear of corn to test the moisture content during a visit to the field in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, co-owner of Pioneer Valley Popcorn, shells enough kernels from a couple of cobs of corn to load a grain moisture tester in the field in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens shells enough kernels from a couple of cobs of corn to load a grain moisture tester in the field in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, co-owner of Pioneer Valley Popcorn, loads kernels of white popcorn into a grain moisture tester in the field in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, co-owner of Pioneer Valley Popcorn, uses a grain moisture tester to measure the dryness of corn growing in the field in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, at right, co-owner of Pioneer Valley Popcorn, visits the field in Colrain to test the moisture content of the corn and determine when it will be ready for harvesting. Above, he uses a grain moisture measurer to test the content of corn. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens and his crew unload new 55-gallon barrels in preparation for shelling the dried popcorn cobs in this crib and storing the kernels at the Pioneer Valley Popcorn farm in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. The corn was harvested last year and stored in cribs to dry. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, left, and his father-in-law, Chip Hager, load dried corn from last season into a processor that strips the kernels from the cobs at the farm in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Aaron Stevens, right, and Kate Bassett transfer dried corn cobs from last season into a processor that will strip the kernels from the cobs at the farm in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Popcorn kernels, just shelled from the cob, flow into a 55-gallon barrel during processing at the Pioneer Valley Popcorn farm in Colrain on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. The corn was harvested last year and had been stored in cribs at the farm to dry. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Chip Hager, followed by the family beagle, Cider, takes part in a busy day of processing last year's harvest at the Pioneer Valley Popcorn farm in Colrain. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pioneer Valley Popcorn for retail sale at Hager's Farm Market in Shelburne. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 11/16/2019 11:00:15 AM

Driving along Route 112 through the rolling hills of Colrain in late autumn, a passerby might not notice the drying field of sun-ripened cornstalks quietly awaiting harvest. Cornfields are pretty common around here, after all. The kernels of this corn, however, are special. Their owner, Aaron Stevens of Shelburne Falls, diligently tests their moisture content each day with a grain moisture tester.

“We like to see it down around 18 percent,” for harvesting, Stevens said. It will continue to dry in the barn.

Why so particular? Because he is growing something uncommon in this part of the country – popcorn.

Most American popcorn grows in the Midwest in states like Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. Even then, according to the University of Iowa, only 1 percent of corn grown in America becomes popcorn. Long a favorite American snack food, the National Popping Board estimates Americans consume 14 billion quarts of popcorn annually with 70 percent of it eaten at home.

Aaron and his wife Kim Stevens, together with father-in-law Albert ‘Chip’ Hager and mother-in-law Sherry Hager of Hager’s Farm Market in Shelburne Falls, decided to become part of this national tradition in 2016 when they purchased Pioneer Valley Popcorn and started growing popcorn locally on part of their 750-acre farm in Colrain.

They used to milk close to 200 cows on their farm along with raising other livestock. In 2015 they decided to sell the milk cows. They were left with open acreage formerly used for the milk cow’s feed corn. “We had to figure out what to do with all that land,” said Stevens. Growing popcorn was the answer.

Pioneer Valley Popcorn annually grows and sells around 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of a heritage, non-GMO, white low hull popcorn. It pops bright white into the familiar puffy “snowflake” shape. Its low hull characteristic means fewer hulls at the bottom of the bowl and fewer toothpicks required.

“We have grown corn for years, but popcorn is different,” said Stevens. The key to high-quality popcorn is moisture content. “It’s all about the kernels,” he said. “If it gets too dry, it won’t pop good. You will have a lot of leftover kernels. Or if it pops when too wet, it has a Styrofoam kind of feel to it. Not crunchy at all.”

The ability to pop is unique to popcorn. It has a non-porous shell that allows the kernel to retain moisture inside. Correct interior moisture enables heat-induced steam pressure to build inside the hard kernel so strong it pops the shell.

“Other kinds of corn cannot create the same pressure in the kernel because the steam will leak through the shell,” Stevens said.

Another difference is popcorn’s hardiness. It takes more warm days to ripen than sweet corn. Stevens’ corn is 100-day corn, meaning it takes 100 growing degree days (GDD) – days above the minimum temperature needed to grow a particular crop – to mature. Sweet corn takes around 80 GDD. Cooler hilltown temperatures create a timing challenge for popcorn planting.

“In Colrain we have to make sure we get the corn in the ground early to get the growing degree days,” Stevens said.

One potential expansion opportunity for Pioneer Valley Popcorn is pink kernelled popcorn. After test growing some this year, Stevens thinks he is going to grow more next year. Quality is the focus. “The quality of (the white corn) we grow right now is really good popcorn,” Stevens said. They want to ensure the pink popcorn’s quality is equally high.

Once the growing, harvesting, drying, and processing are done, it is time to get popping. “I like popcorn in a pan on the stove. A little bit of salt,” Stevens shared. “My daughter’s favorite is any kind with butter on it.”

What goes really well with popcorn besides butter? Maple syrup. “We make some maple popcorn,” said Stevens. “We make our own maple syrup. Everything is all grown on the farm. We have around 10,000 taps in Colrain … There are four or five different sugar bushes tapped into different tanks.”

They make this tasty treat primarily around holiday time.

“Our maple popcorn is all done by hand,” Stevens said. “We have made maple; we have made buffalo. It is really good. I am always getting hounded to make more. We cook the maple syrup and heat it to a certain thickness, then add it to popped corn, mix it up and then it has to be baked until it is dry enough so that it just falls apart. If you don’t bake it, it turns into a soggy clump.”

For their buffalo popcorn, “We use some hot sauce and some maple syrup in that, too,” Stevens said. “It’s got a sweet and a hot taste.”

Pioneer Valley Popcorn’s business has grown since 2016. Stevens estimates they have had a 50 percent growth rate overall. It’s for sale at Pioneer Valley Popcorn at Hager’s Farm Market in Shelburne Falls and at local retail outlets such as River Valley Co-op and State Street Fruit Store in Northampton, Foster’s Supermarket and Big Y in Greenfield, Big E in Easthampton, and Deerfield’s Historic Deerfield among others. Movie theatres also purchase local popcorn with Tower Theaters in South Hadley selling Pioneer Valley Popcorn to moviegoers. He also works with distributor Marty’s Local to extend the business’ reach.

Customers can additionally purchase Pioneer Valley Popcorn products on the Hager’s Farm Market website, hagersfarmmarket.com. “We do a lot of different mail order type products during the holiday season,” said.

“It is fun to build something that people enjoy,” Stevens said. “And it’s healthy.”




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