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Serving the Loup Valley for 140 Years

Popcorn County USA

Looks Toward Expansion

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The crew of Popcorn County USA (l-r): Shane Jensen, Cheryl Massman, Cindy McCall, Mary Dierberger, Mandy Goodrich, Austin Ortmeier, Charles Bishop, Raymond Gregg, Nathan Hill, Craig Welty and President Bill Brush. Not pictured: Ted Kastler.

By Kate Wolf

   Popcorn is the most universally enjoyed, wholesome, healthy treat world-wide. It not only tastes good, but it’s good for you and nobody knows that better than the folks at Popcorn County, USA in North Loup, NE.

   At least five states in the U.S. claim the status of “Popcorn Capitol of the World”: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and North Loup. But it’s not just about quantity, it’s really all about quality, and nobody does it better than North Loup. It’s an important part of the heritage of our area, having been grown here since the late 1800s, and continues to be number one in the state.

   Born out of a series of drought years lasting from 1890 until 1896, popcorn was one of several experimental alternative crops grown in the North Loup River Valley. The experiment was a huge success, North Loup became the “Popcorn Capitol of the World” for quite some time, and the annual “Popcorn Days” celebration began in 1901. It continues to be celebrated each August and has become the longest running annual festival in Nebraska and possibly the entire area west of the Mississippi. Popcorn County USA provides all the popcorn, oil and salt for the celebration each year, as well as for other events, parades, schools, commercial theaters and movie theaters in the Tri-County area, and customers from coast to coast.

   For more than 40 years, the same local business has grown, processed and distributed the best premium popcorn to be found anywhere. In 1983, President Bill Brush took the helm and began to send this “North Loup Gold” throughout the U.S. and to 23 countries around the globe. In October of 2004, the business adopted a new name: Popcorn County, USA, a company which set the highest standards in the popcorn industry and continues to do so.

   This is not the hybrid seed produced by others, but the highly sought after gluten-free, non-GMO finished product ready to pop. They also provide the incredibly healthy, buttery tasting Pop Star Popping Oil, which actually fights cholesterol, so folks can enjoy the snack guilt-free. Popcorn County USA processes and provides several types of popping corn: Mushroom, yellow, white, red and blue, in addition to the seasoned salts that make its flavor unique. Their popcorn-filled burlap bags have become iconic in the industry, a well-known symbol of the business, and highly collectible.

   “Our growers are one of our best assets,” remarked President Bill Brush. “Their popcorn is stored, cleaned and processed right here in North Loup.”

   They begin crop planning for the irrigated crop acres in December and January, which gives them a head start for the coming year. Contracts are signed much like other specialty crops, and it becomes a regular part of their farming operation from year to year. Many area producers are generational popcorn growers, carrying on the tradition established by their fathers and grandfathers.

   Of course, times have changed a lot since then. Technology has altered the way people do business these days. Much of the sales work is done online, through Zoom meetings and WhatsApp. Still, some of the “old ways” persist to this day.

   Almost everyone has seen the historic red elevator on the east side of North Loup along the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 11. This is Popcorn County USA’s Processing Plant. They also own the bins on either side of the highway, as well as their offices and retail space clearly marked by appropriate signage as you enter North Loup from the east. The business also serves as a local UPS drop site.

   Austin Ortmeier is Controller and Field Manager of Popcorn County USA, Craig Welty of Cairo is in charge of Sales and Distribution, Shane Jensen and Mary Dierberger manage Operations, while Mandy Goodrich is Office Manager. Ted Kastler handles International Sales from his home office in Ord. President Bill Brush is highly respected in the popcorn industry and has served on the USDA’s Popcorn Board of the U.S. for many years and been officially recognized for his invaluable service.

   What many people may not know is that Popcorn County USA is working to build a replacement Processing Plant near the railroad tracks which will better facilitate processing and shipping.

   “The North Loup area is a great place to grow popcorn, but it’s expensive to ship,” explained Brush, due to the current distance to accessible railroad shipping container ramps. The shipping containers currently have to be sent to North Loup from railroad yards in Kansas City.

   Growth and expansion will not only benefit Popcorn County, USA, but the community of North Loup, as well as all of Valley County and beyond. The firm will still retain its personal touch and great customer service, for which it is well known, including the enviable employee retention record it is so proud of.

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