GAMBIER — Stockberger’s Spring Hill is a popping place where owner Allen Stockberger, a farmer and retired Knox County Commissioner, is in his 35th year growing popcorn — and lots of it. That amounts to 165 acres planted on 12 fields this season.
Sure, he has to contend with prairie grass, pokeweed that can stain kernels with its color, and pesky deer, who like to nibble the tops off stalks in the outer-most rows. But Stockberger said he will once again do well growing popcorn this season, having planted the crop in late April with harvesting to come in October.
The reason Stockberger has done as well as he has is found in the name of his business — the “Spring Hill” part. Rain is good for popcorn growing, but too much of it, like the record amounts that have occurred in Ohio the past two years, tends to dampen popcorn planting efforts.
But Stockberger has the advantage of growing his popcorn on hills, lots of them. His popcorn, at 34,000 seeds planted per acre, each row spaced 30 inches apart, grows alongside and near his Pipesville Road farm, which is near Indianfield Bluffs Park and the Kokosing River. Water flows off his hills once heavy rains give his crops a good soak, traveling down waterways into ravines.
He grows two types of popcorn — gourmet eating popcorn loved at movie theaters, and the “mushroom popcorn” that is best for coated popcorn treats like caramel corn and kettle corn. In the past, he has sold popcorn to the likes of Orville Redenbacher and Act II.
Earlier this year, because of heavy rains, some commercial popcorn makers contacted Stockberger because they had an issue. Rains had over-saturated their fields and so they weren’t able to get their spring plantings in on time. Stockberger already had contracts with Shumway Popcorn and Metzger Popcorn.
“They (other commercial popcorn makers) did contact me however, by the time they did I had already planted all of the popcorn acres I have available,” he said.
Stockberger doesn’t just grow popcorn at Stockberger Farms, established in 1975. He also grows an Ohio “hard” wheat called Napoleon wheat, along with barley and non-GMO soybeans popular in Asia for tofu products. Non-GMO means they are not genetically modified.
“There is also no genetically modified popcorn. It’s all natural,” he offered.
Stockberger uses crop rotations, which means he alters the crops planted in each field each year.
He has three bins for wheat and one for barley, and currently, his bins are preparing those crops by drying them. In the fall, the popcorn will be bin-bound.
Unlike commercial corn, which is known for its sturdy stalks and large ears, popcorn stalks are not as sturdy. And ears are smaller than commercial corn, with kernels that are round — like a teardrop — instead of being square in shape.
“I tell people that popcorn is a ‘wimpy’ corn,” he said, due to not being nearly as sturdy as commercial corn. But popcorn is certainly prolific — with one ear yielding 400 kernels, or 1,300 kernels per pound. With their 13 to 14 percent moisture content, popcorn kernels are just about perfect for being heated into popcorn, he offered.
Americans eat about one billion pounds of popcorn per year, or about 3.25 pounds per person. That amounts to nearly $2 billion annually in sales.
Stockberger runs most of his planting and harvesting machinery himself, including planting machines and large combines along with the tractors that pull them. He has some help with combine work, and he and wife Deena are known to keep some very large bags of popcorn around for immediate sale if needed.
Having served as a county commissioner for 20 years, Stockberger has been farming more than twice that long. And he seems to enjoy the latter occupation more.
“I think a nice semi (truck) full of popcorn is beautiful to look at,” he said.