By Whitney Baxter
The unmistakable, slightly grainy smell of popcorn. The sound of kernels exploding as they heat up in the microwave, starting off slowly, then increasing in frequency before slowing down again and coming to a stop. The sight of 5-gallon buckets filled to the brim with popcorn, some with mushroom flakes, others with butterfly flakes. The clicking of keys on a keyboard as data is entered in the computer. These are the sights and sounds Ken Ziegler has been surrounded by for more than 40 years.
A popcorn fanatic, Ziegler served as Iowa State University’s Iowa Corn Yield Test Program leader and developed and became the university’s Popcorn Breeding Program project leader from 1977 until his retirement in 2004.
“I just really liked it, and I could use my plant breeding training,” Ziegler said of his popcorn breeding research. “It gave me a chance to work with something I have enjoyed eating all my life.”
Due to a lack of funding and not being able to find someone to fill Ziegler’s position, the Popcorn Breeding Program at Iowa State ended when Ziegler retired. However, the university allowed Ziegler to continue his popcorn research through a private company he started - Ken’Z Popcorn Plus.
“I approached the university and they gave me permission to continue using material I had developed while I was employed at Iowa State,” Ziegler said.
This continuation of breeding and popping popcorn for research purposes - even though he was retired - kept going until March of this year, when Ziegler retired (again). He has spent the past four years popping single ears of popcorn for the company that bought Ken’Z Popcorn Plus, due to that company not being set up for popping single ears. Plus, he wanted to stay connected with the popcorn material he had developed.
A highlight of Ziegler’s popcorn career occurred in 1996, when his lab became the first to pop a 30-gram sample of popcorn from a single ear that resulted in 100 percent round ball mushroom flakes.
“After several years of searching and selecting for an ear that would pop 100 percent round ball flakes, it was extremely exciting to see that first 30-gram sample that popped 100 percent round ball mushroom flakes,” Ziegler said. “We continued developing the line, and in 2000, our program at Iowa State released BPM1 - the first popcorn inbred to pop 100 percent round ball mushroom flakes - to the popcorn industry.”
He and his research team would pop anywhere from 6,000-8,000 ears of popcorn annually. Then, based on the data they collected, each fall they would select the best popping popcorn material to plant again the following year.
Iowa State’s Popcorn Breeding Program was started in 1921 by J.C. Eldredge, who ran it until 1960. Ziegler reincarnated the program in 1981. Over the years, Iowa State became known for having the most comprehensive public popcorn breeding program in the nation, as well as for having the last public, academic-based popcorn breeding facility.
Now that Ziegler is retired - for a second time - he and his wife plan to do some traveling once the COVID-19 pandemic settles down. He also plans to continue popping popcorn, but for his own consumption rather than research purposes. After 40 years of working with it, he still loves eating, and popping, popcorn.