Plovgh is a cooperative of farmers, growers, and ranchers that sell directly to their customers.
Fitkin Popping Corn (Fit-Pop) - Cedar Falls, Iowa
Harvesting: November 2013
Around the year 1612, early French explorers through the Great Lakes region noted that the Iroquois popped popcorn with heated sand in a pottery vessel and used it to make popcorn soup, among other things.
Popcorn has a long agricultural history. Precisely how popcorn originated is a topic of debate, though it did originate in the Americas. Some experts believe that corn was developed by centuries of breeding and crossbreeding wild grasses like teosinte. When farmers are considering seed selection, expansibility and maturity are two key factors. Maximum popping potential hinges on the corn reaching full maturity and there are many factors that can prematurely terminate plant development such as drought stress, disease, and frost. When harvesting, farmers wait until the corn has cured on the stalk as much as possible, but not so long that it is damaged by fall moisture or by corn stalks falling over. Once picked, the corn must be dried until it reaches its optimum moisture level of 13.5% to 14%.
Popcorn is delicate and starchy, and depending on what topping you choose, sweet or savory. Jim Fitkin’s popping corn is unique in that it has a subtle taste of the Iowa prairie where it was grown.
One of the more desirable traits of popcorn is expansibility; a measure of the volume ratio of popped corn to unpopped corn. Popcorn kernels can come in two shapes: “Butterfly” which are irregular in shape and have a number of protruding “wings”, or “Mushroom” flakes which are largely ball-shaped, with few wings. Jim’s popping corn is grown in northeast Iowa and is a hybrid variety with mushroom-like kernels.
We all know that when popcorn is heated it expands from the kernel and puffs up. But why? The folklore of some Native American tribes told of spirits who lived inside each kernel of popcorn, and who grew angry if their houses were heated. The real expansion happens because the kernels have a hard moisture-sealed hull and a dense starchy interior and under the right temperature, pressure builds inside the kernel, and a small explosion - or “pop!” - is the end result. Once popped you can eat popcorn with whatever toppings you choose; salt, butter, chili flakes or cream and sugar. When it comes to Jim’s popping corn, we’re staunch traditionalists and hold true to this recipe complements of the McVay family.
Production of our popcorn was cut by over half last year due to the drought. Northeast Iowa, where I farm, was hit the hardest last year by the drought. This year we had a record wet and cold spring which then turned into a “flash drought”. At this time Northeast Iowa, although still dry, is the wettest part of Iowa. Our yields should only be slightly below trend line.- A conversation with Jim Fitkin of Fitkin Farms in Cedar Falls, Iowa earlier this season
Below is a snapshot of where Plovgh members are beginning to organize. Do you see your neighborhood or city or borough on the map? No? Well, here’s where to get started.
This organic nonsense has to stop. I’d like to politely request that those who don’t know agriculture cease writing about it as though they do, stoking an already divisive debate that misses the heart of the problem we face: We’re not sure how we should be growing food, and thus we’re not sure how to eat.
Anyone who suggests that a crop can be raised without the provision of nutrients and pest management should not opine on agriculture. Roger Cohen, I’m talking to you.
Saturday’s opinion piece, shows me just how far off course the discussion of agricultural production has gotten because it spreads misinformation and focuses squarely on the wrong problem. If we continue to debate organic versus conventional, continue to view food choices as an emblem of class, and continue to use the nine billion future people of the world as a gauntlet that the human race must run, we are in trouble because the question is not first about production. It’s about distribution.
We produce enough to feed 1.3 billion more people than we actually do. And that’s in American proportions. In 2000, the USDA reported that Americans consumed almost 2,000 pounds of food per person per year. Meanwhile, 1.3 billion tons of global food production goes to waste each year. Production by any method, standard, or label is not our most pressing problem.
Getting production where it is needed and wanted is another story. We’ve got a billion or so people on this planet consuming too much of the wrong kinds of calories and another approximate billion getting too few of the right nutrients. Most food production happens far from population centers, and timing is everything whether you’re moving kale to market or wheat to a mill, so properly matching supply with demand is tricky. Here we are in 2012, endowed with information and technology that together can make just about any transaction instantaneous. Yet we rely on supply chains that emerged in the 19th century to connect us with our food.
The diversity that agricultural products present complicates matters too. Because of weather, seed variety, origin, soil conditions, and a host of other factors, not every tomato tastes the same and sweet corn from my home state of Minnesota is like corn from nowhere else. I value that distinction in my food.
On the whole, our economy does not.
We produce and consume food within a structure that was built for undifferentiated, commodity products. The processes that move vast amounts of crops from harvest, to processing, to wholesale, to retail, to you keep the producer and the consumer conveniently separated – by about $0.84 for every dollar you spend. The anonymous middle of merchants, distributors, sellers, and superstores has driven consumers to rely on certifications like organic to tell them more about the products they’re buying than anyone else will. Producers, in turn, seek that certification as a way to distinguish their products in the marketplace.
Because so far they are all we’ve had to rely on to see something, anything, through the haze of the modern food system, labels have an inflated value. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that only spoiled rich folks, as Cohen would have it, feel strongly about the short- and long-term effects their food has on themselves, their families, and their environments.
Look at Growing Power, where Will Allen has built an urban farming empire-of-everyman. Look at the Bed-Stuy CSA of Brooklyn, where middle income families subsidize shares so their lower income neighbors can participate in getting food directly from farms. Look at the verdant farmers market culture in northern Iowa. Look at the efforts of farmers in Tchula, Mississippi, to grow food – not corn, not soy, not cotton – to feed their county first, and everyone else they can thereafter.
If anything, the debate surrounding how we produce and move food should unite us. Articles like Cohen’s are a soap box, and soak up our energy with debate when they should instead focus on shared principles: sufficient food to feed our people, production technology and innovation (from nutrient-rich composting techniques and drip irrigation, to GPS systems in John Deere tractors) that facilitate efficient and sufficient food production, soil and water systems that promise years and years of sustained agricultural production, and access for every single person to the abundance that we now know, but that our great-grandparents did not.
The science should focus on how we get there. I’d like to see, for example, a comparison of per-acre nutrient yields and revenue for six different production systems: conventional and certified organic commodity, conventional and certified organic fruit and vegetable under mass production, conventional but diversified fruit and vegetable production, and fruit and vegetable production under what we might call “beyond organic”, “practical”, “sustainable”, or whatever term most effectively conveys the rational approach of a growing number of farmers to use the best means they have to produce a crop that is healthy, high-yielding, and good to eat. Personal experience suggests that the last of these, which takes place right now on small- and mid-sized enterprises, is our greatest hope.
The future may not be organic but it is also not conventional. We should set aside the debate about organics and start identifying at a large scale an alternative path for the production, distribution, purchase, and consumption of the food that we all rely on for sustenance.
In the McVay family, Sunday night wouldn’t be complete without an enormous bowl of popcorn. It’s been happening that way for decades. After a day on horseback at the farm or at the end of a Minneapolis weekend, someone (usually Lizzy’s mama, Kita) pulls out the kettle, heats the oil, and drops the first kernel in. Once it pops, you know you’re on your way to goodness.
When Plovgh returned from Iowa farm visits with a case of Jim Fitkin’s yellow popping corn, Kita tried it out. She now swears by it, as does Lizzy, who thinks it has hints of Iowa prairie, much like her preferred drink, Templeton Rye. Here’s what you can do with the popcorn.
1. Get a bag of Jim Fitkin’s popping corn.
2. Cover the bottom of a saucepan or kettle with a thin layer of the oil of your choice.
3. Turn the stove on high heat.
4. Add a single kernel to the pot and cover.
5. Wait for the kernel to pop to indicate that the oil is sufficiently hot.
6. Cover the bottom of the pot with a single layer of popping corn.
7. Cover and gently shake the pot over the heat for a few minutes or until popping noises have ceased.
8. Transfer the popped corn to a bowl.
9. Add melted butter, olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary, and cayenne as desired.
Earlier this year, Plovgh got started with a few weeks of farm pickups at Veronica People’s Club in Greenpoint. Those initial weeks were a humble beginning to a much bigger project and served to test the Plovgh concept with farmers, our neighbors in 11222, and the lovely proprietors of VPC. We then spent all summer and fall talking with more farms and communities in more places, and commencing to build Plovgh. Starting on Saturday, and every other week thereafter, VPC will once again be a Plovgh Pickup Point. Come on out, Greenpoint. We can’t wait to see you again.