If Chuck Zangger’s mom had tossed an old peanut butter jar full of popcorn like she did some of his vintage baseball cards back in the day, 30 percent of the world’s supply of popcorn seeds probably wouldn’t be coming out of Zangger Farms in North Loup, NE.
In 1982, Zangger was growing popcorn on the same 600-acre farm as his father and grandfather before him, when an early frost nipped the crop and created a popcorn farmer’s worst nightmare: the popcorn, well…it didn’t pop. The crop was a total loss, and Zangger complained to his seed salesman. “He told me I should breed my own popcorn seed,” Zangger said. “We needed seed that had adapted to this region and had a shorter growing season, and he said he would help me do it.”
Zangger needed a popcorn seed that was native to the North Loup Valley, where popcorn growers had proliferated since the first known popcorn was produced in 1883. Then it hit him. As a kid he always grew things in the family garden, and a neighbor had once given him some flint corn—“Indian corn” as it was known then, grown by native Americans in the territory. Zangger remembered putting some of the corn in a peanut butter jar and tucking it away in a shed on his parents’ property. “I drove to my parents’ house and went to the back garden shed,” Zangger recalled. “My Mickey Mantle baseball card and a bunch of my other cards from the ’50s were gone. But almost 30 years later, the jar of corn was still there.”
Zangger used the popcorn in the jar to cross-breed with another corn variety from his seed supplier for one growing season. He cross-bred it again the next year, and a new hybrid popcorn seed was eventually created that Zangger sold for the first time in 1991. Zangger’s new hybrid and many varieties since then have a shortened growing season of 97-98 days vs. the 108-111 days of the hybrid seed line he used to buy—solving the issue of the crop being harvested later in the season when early frost is a danger. “We were in the perfect position to make selections and breed in Nebraska,” Zangger said. “And we were able to experiment with other breeding techniques and work on our selection process in a small nursery we set up.”
Zangger eventually transitioned out of growing edible popcorn, and the family owned and operated company and land is now fully dedicated to producing hybrid varieties of popcorn seeds that are grown in more than 30 countries around the world. With wife Carolyn and sons Josh, Luke, and Jacob running the business, Zangger Popcorn Hybrids produces 30-40 new hybrid seed varieties every year, and they repeatedly sell the same 60 varieties to processors worldwide.
So every time someone pops a bag of microwave popcorn or enjoys some pre-popped cheddar or caramel corn, there is a good chance the seeds came from one of Zangger’s hybrids, but it’s tough to know for sure. At any given time, Zangger is working with around 800 different hybrid seeds in its primary test plot in North Loup, and the company has test plots in four states and in other countries that include Brazil, South Africa, France, Spain, Turkey, and the Ukraine that are producing new varieties of hybrid seeds annually. “We only work for independent processors and sell to them,” Zangger said. “Sometimes we speak directly to them and get to know them, but it’s rare that we get to know who is using our varieties of popcorn seeds.”
All of this development over the past 30 years has moved the company to the head of a small pack of competitors—only five other companies in the U.S. and two abroad produce hybrid popcorn seeds—and has led to a product in which Zangger is a strong believer. After an accident a few years ago sidelined Zangger and caused him to gain 20-25 pounds, he moved to a daily lunch diet of half a pound of popcorn and a glass of milk. A month later, the weight was gone. “I’ve always liked popcorn,” said Zangger, unable to fathom how much he’s consumed in his lifetime. “It’s a very good food that’s high in protein and good for digestion. So we feel great about the business we’ve built and the product we provide to the world.”
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