Popcorn represents the sweet and salty side of Wisconsin's corn industry
Corn is one of Wisconsin's top commodities with more than 3 million acres of corn fields – and popcorn is quickly becoming a popular alternative to traditional corn farming.
Wisconsin Gold Harvest in Helenville has been selling unpopped popcorn kernels for almost 40 years. Owners Carl and Colleen Weider split the business in two, with Carl working the fields and manufacturing and Colleen working the website and sales.
Colleen said Carl went into the popcorn business because it's more financially viable than traditional corn farming. She said he had to get his farming and manufacturing equipment specially modified in order to go into the industry because typical corn equipment doesn't suit the same needs.
"He's a farmer – he's very good with the soil, knowing what to do with the soil and planting," Colleen said. "His equipment is all geared for popcorn."
Wisconsin Gold Harvest sells all sorts of kernels, from white to yellow to even red and blue. They also grow different varieties, like butterfly, mushroom and baby rice, along with some heirloom varieties like Japanese hull-less.
Colleen said different kernels have different sizes, textures, flavors and shapes – butterfly popcorn is what most people are used to eating with butter, but mushroom popcorn is more familiar for caramel popcorn lovers. Midnight blue and ruby red varieties have a nuttier taste, while pearly whites are creamier, she explained.
"I actually like to mix (the varieties)," Colleen said. "If I have a bit here and there I'll just add it. I kind of like to pop them in our air popper."
The Weiders don't have a storefront right now as most of their orders are filled by a grocery distributor or through mail, but visitors are sometimes allowed to see the farm for themselves and buy products on-site. Their popcorn can also be purchased at Woodman's, Pick 'n Save and other local stores.
Rural Route 1 Popcorn in Montfort has also been in the business since 1983. Its parent company Biddick, Inc. has grown seed corn for over a century, and popcorn was the company's latest venture into diversifying their crops. They grow several hundred acres of seed corn that is eventually turned around into popcorn.
Melissa Trecek, Rural Route 1's retail brand strategy manager, said that although they first started out small with mail-order catalogs, they have now grown into a manufacturing and wholesale company with a large distribution chain and a retail store.
"We started on 25 acres and it took off from there," Trecek said. "The popcorn that we sell today was actually made and created in the original owner's kitchen."
Rural Route 1 mostly sells popped popcorn in butterfly and mushroom varieties, although they sell some butterfly kernels for home popping, Trecek said. She added that their most popular flavors are cheese, classic butter and caramel sea salt. They also sell fudge popcorn during the colder months when it won't melt during transit.
Both Weider and Trecek said being in the popcorn industry is a year-round commitment, because you generally plant in the summer, harvest in the fall, dry in the winter and package and sell in the spring. Trecek said summer is her company's ideal time to restock and re-evaluate sales.
"Summertime is really our peak ... from a production standpoint, especially now in July going through October or November," Trecek said. "That's really where we ramp up, because ... that's when we see a huge surge for seasonality."
Rural Route 1's retail store is located in Montfort. They also have online ordering, including wholesale and corporate sales, on their website.