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Grab an ear, then give it a twist and a jerk

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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio

The Maytags, one of Iowa’s most famous pioneer families, are at it again.

But this time, they’re ignoring modern technology. And the surprising product is … popcorn.

“It makes all of us think about our heritage, our Iowa heritage of real people. And we thought what could be more Iowan than popcorn?” said Ken Maytag, who was raised on Maytag Dairy Farms. He’s the great-grandson of the German immigrant who founded the Maytag appliance company. 

Maytag and others were on hand recently for the farm’s first popcorn harvest — a hand harvest — which was held outside Newton, Iowa, during the 70th anniversary celebration of Maytag Dairy’s famous blue cheese. Special guests were invited to pick some popcorn to take home. 

Nearly three acres were picked by hand, a throwback to how popcorn was harvested decades ago.  The instructions: Just grab an ear, give it a twist and a jerk, and it falls off in your hand.

Myrna Ver Ploeg, president of Maytag Dairy, said hand picking reduces damage, and drying it on the cob produces ideal moisture content, resulting in fewer un-popped kernels.

“It’s amazing just what handling it correctly and what hand harvesting does for the quality of the pop,” she said.

Farmers who work with the big popcorn companies don’t harvest by hand anymore — for good reason.

Garry Smith, president of Jolly Time in Sioux City, Iowa, the nation’s No. 3 producer, said it’s probably been 75 years since his contract farmers have hand-picked popcorn.

“Over the years combines have improved and the farmers know the settings and that quality difference just didn’t warrant the extra expense, so now literally all popcorn throughout the entire industry is combined, and so we’re taking in just the kernels now,” Smith said.

Nonetheless, Smith said hand-picking is good marketing for a small company just getting started. 

Ver Ploeg said she considers popcorn to be just a little sideline to Maytag’s cheese business.

“It’s refreshing, it’s something small, its special, it’s organic,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ll be pushing Orville Redenbacher probably by next year anyway.” 

Maytag Dairy Farms expects to shell hundreds of pounds of popcorn, compared to Jolly Time’s 55 million.