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Kansas family grows fresh from the farm popcorn

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post
Popcorn is based on similar agronomy concepts as field corn, although it typically has a shorter season and is a bit weaker and more susceptible to insects and the elements.
Photo courtesy Free Day Popcorn

As more and more people thirst for the connection of knowing where their food comes from and the farmer who grew it, that’s the foundation that propelled a family in America’s heartland to grow popcorn on their farm on the Kansas/Nebraska border.

Nate and Stacey Freitag started growing their popcorn business called Free Day Popcorn in 2015 in Byron, Neb.

“We’ve been growing popcorn. Nate’s dad has been farming popcorn for three decades for commercial processors. Also, we always enjoyed eating popcorn fresh from neighboring Byron farmers in the late 1980s, and when we shared it with friends, they always commented how it was the best popcorn they ever tasted. So, we decided to grow a small amount and sell it direct from the farm,” Stacey Freitag said. The warehouse is located in rural Byron.

Due to COVID, with theaters and gourmet popcorn shops closed or at reduced capacity, the Freitag’s popcorn business is reduced by 90 percent. In this different new economy, they’ve chosen to creatively develop other ways to get their popcorn to market. Over the summer, Stacey worked with a graphic designer to create a custom designed package for consumers. The newly designed 3 pound resealable pouches have a zipper closure to keep the popcorn fresh when not in use.

Meanwhile, their popcorn harvest season is just around the corner. Harvest is in late September when the moisture content of popcorn kernels is ideal at approximately 15 percent.

“We generally try to plant in early May and harvest in late September. Every year is different though. Harvest depends on moisture content of the popcorn. If it’s harvested at too high a moisture content, the kernels could crack or get scratched. Too dry (below 13 percent) and the kernels won’t pop as well,” Stacey said.

For Stacey, it’s been all on-the-job training. She’s originally from Pennsylvania, and although she doesn’t come from a farming background, she has developed savvy acumen for homegrown popcorn and sharing its benefits. Her parents enjoy coming out to the farm every year around harvest time to help pick, sort and package the ‘Popping Ear’ gift product for customers, which includes ears of popcorn that can be popped directly on the ear it grew, in the microwave.

They also sell several flavors of unpopped popcorn kernels, which are popular sellers including the Yellow Butterfly popcorn, which Stacey calls, “the good old-fashioned movie theater popcorn.” It expands well and is full of flavor, she said. There’s also Mushroom popcorn (it pops in a ball). “The round mushroom balls don’t break apart as easily when being coated mechanically with candy flavoring,” Stacey said. There is also White Butterfly popcorn. It’s often called hull-less although it has a hull, but it’s thin and shatters more completely during popping. Stacey said this is preferred by people who like fewer hulls.

“We market directly to consumers and educate them about the growing process from our multi-generational family farm. Our popcorn is literally fresh from the farm and we believe there is a difference in popping quality and taste,” said Stacey, adding, “Fresh is best.”

SEVENTH GENERATION

Their popcorn business is in its first generation but Nate and Stacey are actually a seventh generation family who farm. Nate’s great, great, great grandfather (Johan Christoph Freitag) purchased the original family farm in 1879 for $3 an acre, and that’s the location where Nate and Stacey grow popcorn. They also grow field corn and soybeans. Over the years, the Freitag family has been immersed in numerous aspects of farming; including livestock, hay, custom corn shelling, house painting and growing popcorn.

“Free Day Popcorn plays on our heritage. Freitag means Friday in German and translates literally to ‘Free Day,’” Stacey said.

Their four daughters all help out. There are numerous duties, from husking ears of popcorn to marketing and promoting the company. Nate and his dad handle most of the field work. Nate is also a full-time social studies high school teacher working virtually for Insight School of Kansas based in Olathe. Stacey covers sales, marketing and social media.

Popcorn is based on similar agronomy concepts as field corn, although it typically has a shorter season and is a bit weaker and more susceptible to insects and the elements. Its stalks are weaker than field corn, it takes less water and nitrogen than field corn.

“It is picky about when it wants water — we are always cautious about making sure it is well watered during pollination. Then, we store it in grain bins to condition it until it is at the ideal moisture for popping: 13.5 percent. We have it cleaned at Polansky Seed in Belleville (Kansas) and bagged. “Unlike larger commercial processors who may mix older popcorn kernels with newer popcorn to fill the bag, we never blend with a previous year’s harvest.”

Growing popcorn is a lot like farming field corn, but it is all non-GMO so it is more susceptible to plant diseases, insects and you cannot spray it with glyphosate, Stacey said. “Popcorn does seem to do better with cooler evenings during pollination.”

They have learned a great deal from Nate’s father, who has provided guidance to get the business popping. “Nate’s father is a wealth of knowledge and knows the ins and outs of growing popcorn. We have also benefitted from discussions with neighbors, agronomists and seed dealers,” Stacey said.

Free Day Popcorn has shipped their popcorn products to all 50 states. Through their website http://www.freedaypopcorn.com, in addition to placing an order, they offer popping videos, recipes, and readers can learn about the farm. “Look for our recipe for salted caramel popcorn made with our mushroom popcorn. You won’t be sorry,” Stacey said.

“Our goal is to connect our customers to the farmers that grew their popcorn (us)! Nate has recently started teaching our girls ‘Corn School’ on our social media pages, which is a fun educational time for our girls and followers on social media. Nate teaches how popcorn is pollinated and explains the different types of corn,” said Stacey. Closer to harvest time, Nate will also detail how popcorn is harvested. “Virtual farm tours are on the books as well. We love showing our customers what farming is like behind the scenes and want to connect with them,” Stacey said. “Education is one of the best ways to break down stereotypes and misunderstandings.”

“It’s cool to grow popcorn, and know where it ends up. Nothing is greater than sitting in a movie theater with other people eating the popcorn grown on a farm that’s been in your family since Rutherford B. Hayes was president (1877 to 1881),” Stacey said. “We love the challenges each growing season brings, and we cherish our customers who make it all worthwhile.”

For more information, go to http://www.freedaypopcorn.com. ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at rotatingstorm2004@yahoo.com.


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