Growing and Harvesting Popcorn is an Annual Tradition at Westminster Schools!

By Irene Canaris
Garden Coordinator

popcorn-harvest-21Did you know that each popcorn kernel contains a single droplet of water inside a tiny circle of soft starch? The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel’s hard outer surface. As the kernel heats up, the water begins to expand. Around 212 degrees, the water turns into steam and changes the starch inside each kernel into a superhot gelatinous goop.

The kernel continues to heat to about 347 degrees. The pressure inside the grain will reach 135 pounds per square inch before finally bursting the hull open! Popcorn needs between 13.5-14% moisture to pop. If the kernels are too dry or too wet, they won’t pop into the fluffy crisp kernels we know and love. OK, maybe this is too much information for you, but it appeals to the budding mathematicians and scientists in our fourth grade classrooms.

The job of our third graders every spring on Planting Day is to plant donated sets of popcorn in rows in our school garden. This is an important job because it begins the cycle of cultivation that results in a healthy snack of popcorn every week during the school year for 170 students and their teachers.

During the summer months, growing plants are weeded by teams of volunteers, Youth Services crews and summer school campers. This is a critical part of the popcorn story. Weeds grow vigorously during July and August.

In the fall of their next year of school the same students, now fourth graders, harvest and dry the popcorn for snack. They estimate how many ears their harvest will yield by looking at the rows and the ears per plant. They run experiments to determine the best and most “poppable” popcorn. (Teachers understand the relevance of these activities and match them to the core curriculum.)

catalina-seeding-photofromirenec-westminstercs-2016Depending on the amount of rain during the summer months, popcorn may require a varying amount of time to dry. Students have taken trips to nearby Harlow Farm to observe commercial operations for popcorn drying and hulling. Removing the dried hard kernels by hand is a pleasurable activity to a point. After a while, students were developing blisters on their hands. At a Farm to School workshop last year, I learned about a small inexpensive tool for removing kernels painlessly. Unlike the beautiful antique electric huller at Harlow Farm, this tool is manually operated. It fits the needs of our small popcorn operation perfectly and it costs about $9.00! (Decker Corn Sheller, Keokuk, Iowa)

pileofseededcorn-photofromirenec-westminstercs-2016A former student from our school, Brandon Allen, is now a farmer and CPO (Chief of Popcorn Operations) at the Harlow Farm. He invented a method of drying and storing the hulled kernels and we tried replicating his invention at school. I pre-drilled holes in PVC pipes after cutting them. I also drilled holes a mini rubber trash container. A team of fourth graders put their heads together to figure out the assembly of our own school mini-popcorn storage unit! servingpopcorn-photofromirenec-westminstercs-2016

During the winter, we have a dedicated parent volunteer who arrives every Wednesday to pop enough popcorn for the entire school at snack time. The movie theater-sized popcorn popper was donated by another community parent. It does indeed take a village to feed our children popcorn.

Irene Canaris is a retired elementary school teacher and now part-time Garden Coordinator at the Westminster Schools. More information on the Westminster Schools garden can be found on her blog: vermontschoolgarden.com