Ag Alumni Seed's Director of Research Max Robbins (left) and President and CEO Jay Hulbert savor the fruit of their labors—fresh popcorn—at the edge of the organization's cornfields in Romney, Indiana.Ag Alumni Seed's Director of Research Max Robbins (left) and President and CEO Jay Hulbert savor the fruit of their labors—fresh popcorn—at the edge of the organization's cornfields in Romney, Indiana. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Pop Stars

Popcorn Powerhouse Ag Alumni Seed Gives Back to Purdue

By Natalie van Hoose - Published November 6, 2015

In a growing global market for popcorn, standby styles like buttery or caramel-coated share shelf space with popcorn spiked with wasabi, Kalamata olive flavoring or chili powder and a squeeze of lime.

And at a farm operation near Romney, Indiana, the staff at the Agricultural Alumni Seed Improvement Association Inc. all take their popcorn the same way: very seriously.

For the past three decades, Ag Alumni Seed, a Purdue University-affiliated seed breeding company, has turned out high-performing popcorn hybrids, continuing in the rich tradition of popcorn genetics pioneered in the College of Agriculture.

"We are passionate about popcorn—and we don't apologize for that," says Jay Hulbert, president and CEO.

Passion is a prerequisite for carving out popcorn acreage in the Midwest, more renowned for dent corn. About 180,000 acres of popcorn were planted in the U.S. this year, compared with 88 million acres of dent corn. The industry's small size—the U.S. market contains fewer than two dozen processors—makes popcorn akin to other specialty crops such as tomatoes and watermelons, Hulbert says.

But Ag Alumni Seed's dedication to the crop has paid off: The company has become a leading supplier of popcorn hybrids, and Indiana consistently ranks among the top popcorn-producing states.

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Packing Popcorn's Punch

Breeding the perfect popcorn is a formidable task, says Max Robbins, the company's director of research.

Robbins and his team must develop hybrids with solid yields, disease resistance, hardy stalks, good kernel color and size, "poppability" and suitability for filling a specific slot in the market such as theatre, microwave or ready-to-eat popcorn. And those are just the agronomic factors.

The team also evaluates popcorn flavor, aroma, expansion ratio, moisture content, mouthfeel and fluffiness. The flake even has to be "attractive" once it pops.

Suddenly, your late-night snack seems as complex as a fine cabernet.

But Robbins savors the challenge. "It makes the breeding fun," he says. "Dent corn is just about yield. With popcorn, we're looking at so many things."

Sowing New Science

Started in 1938 by the Purdue Agriculture Alumni Association as Indiana's foundation seed company, Ag Alumni Seed's purpose shifted as private businesses took over public breeding programs.

"We had to find another means of survival," Robbins says. "Because of Purdue's long history in developing popcorn hybrids, it made sense for us to move into that niche."

Legendary Purdue popcorn geneticist Bruce Ashman helped the company make the transition by joining as a consultant. By 2001, Ag Alumni Seed had become a major grower and supplier of popcorn foundation seed, typically releasing several new varieties a year.

Hulbert estimates that Purdue genetics account for more than 60 percent of the global popcorn industry.

The company's focus may have changed, but its twofold mission has not. It continues to offer improved genetics to farmers and support Purdue.

Over the last 10 years, the company has given more than $2.5 million to Purdue agricultural research and Extension programs and scholarships, including $500,000 to kickstart a plant phenotyping facility that will collect billions of field measurements to help researchers develop new crop varieties for a range of environments.

Ag Alumni Seed also plays a valuable role in commercializing crop varieties and seed traits developed at Purdue, says Marshall Martin, Purdue senior associate director of agricultural research and a member of the company's board of directors.

"For over 75 years, this relationship has been mutually beneficial to Purdue faculty and students and to farmers around the world," he says.

In addition to popcorn, the company has programs in sorghum and soybeans and works closely with Purdue's small grains program headed by wheat breeder Mohsen Mohammadi.

"We rely on Ag Alumni to commercialize the varieties we develop," he says. "The market is a big share of the work."

While the company is always looking to diversify, Hulbert predicts its heavyweight crop won't change.

"Popcorn is really our heart and soul. We'll be doing popcorn forever."