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Popcorn heads west.

Popcorn farming, now done mainly in the Midwest, may increase to major proportions in the Pacific Northwest. In part, the shift could result from a casual conversation during a break at the 1988 Entomological Society of America meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

Agricultural Research Service entomologist Richard L. Wilson of the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station at Ames, Iowa, mentioned to another scientist that he had been screening, or testing, popcorn germplasm for resistance to corn earworm and European corn borer.

The popcorns had been left to the Plant Introduction Station by the late J.C. Eldredge, an Iowa State University popcorn breeder from 1921 to 1960.

"Of the 35 samples screened, 1 red inbred popcorn, P.I. 340856, turned out to have silks with unusually strong resistance to corn earworm feeding. But normally, popcorn in the Midwest is hardly damaged by the insect anyway," Wilson remarked to fellow entomologist Gary L. Reed. Perhaps, however, the resistance could be transferred to agronomic varieties of sweet corn that are now quite susceptible.

Reed, superintendent of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station's center at Hermiston, responded, "Corn earworm is our number-one popcorn pest in Oregon !"

After the meeting, Wilson returned to Ames, where he completed screening all 299 popcorn accessions in the National Plant Germplasm System collection. He then sent the Eldredge collection, plus several other of the most promising accessions, to Reed for evaluation under field conditions in Oregon.

Now, breeders are using several of those lines with varying degrees of corn earworm resistance to develop new popcorn cultivars suitable for commercial production in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

In Georgia field conditions, ARS entomologist Billy R. Wiseman of Tifton, also found that several of the lines resisted corn earworm and moderately resisted fall armyworm.

In laboratory studies at Athens, ARS chemist Maurice E. Snook has identified chemicals in the silks that are toxic to the earworms. The major chemical he found was maysin, with concentrations about four times that found in a Mexican corn race, Zapalote Chico, discovered a number of years ago. The research in Georgia should help scientists pinpoint resistance-conferring genes to expedite the transfer of resistance to sweet corn varieties.

Breeding insect resistance into popcorn and sweet corn is becoming an increasingly important goal as more and more pesticides for food crops are taken off the market. In the Pacific Northwest, the advent of popcorn hybrids resistant to corn earworm could accelerate a trend toward increasing acreages of popcorn grown for food. Last year, farmers in Washington and Oregon planted about 5,000 acres of edible popcorn.

Popcorn vendors may find corn grown in the Snake and Columbia River Valleys, where humidity is low, to be very desirable, says Reed. After drying naturally and uniformly in fields, it pops up ruffler and is unlikely to have many kernels that don't pop.--By Ben Hardin, ARS.

Richard L. Wilson is in the USDAARS Plant Introduction Research Unit, G212 Agronomy Bldg., Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011. Phone (515) 294-8583, fax number (515) 294-4880.

Popcorn Potpourri

Americans consume 16.5 billion quarts of popped popcorn annually, according to The Popcorn Institute. Sales of unpopped popcorn grew to more than 1 billion pounds last year. Furthermore:

* About 30 percent of the popcorn is eaten outside the home in theaters, ballparks, schools, etc.

* One cup of unbuttered air-popped popcorn provides 1.3 grams of dietary fiber and about 27 calories-up to 126 calories if lightly buttered.

* Dieters may choose popcorn for snacks to avoid "empty" calories lacking in minerals and vitamins. Popcorn has more protein. phosphorus, and iron than potato chips, ice cream cones, pretzels, or soda crackers.

* Popcorn pops because heat builds steam pressure inside the seed. This happens best at 13.5 to 14 percent moisture. Adding salt before popping toughens the popped corn.

* Archaeologists have found ears of popcorn in New Mexico nearly 5,600 years old, according to radio-carbon tests.
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Author:Hardin, Ben
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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