The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Farmer Q&A: Corn, Popcorn, Soybeans

Farmer Q&A: Corn, Popcorn, Soybeans

From the Farmer's Tractor

October 28, 2012

Zach and Anna Hunnicutt farm corn, popcorn and soybeans in partnership with Zach’s dad and brother under the name Hunnicutt Farms. The Hunnicutts farm about 2,600 acres in Hamilton County Nebraska. Both Zach, 30, and Anna, 29, grew up in farming families. 

How did you get into farming? 

We both grew up in farming families and spent summers helping out on the farm. We moved back to the farm from suburban Kansas City in 2007 when the opportunity to join the farming operation presented itself.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

Though we’re always looking to improve our methods, the three biggest changes have been greatly improved irrigation efficiency, minimized tillage, and – most of all – the rise of precision agriculture. The use of GPS for autosteering and precision product application has changed our farming operation more than anything else in my lifetime. 

How will farming evolve in the next five years?

The good: Farmers will use more complex rotations of crops, genetic traits, and chemicals to conserve resources better and improve effectiveness of pesticides on the targeted pests. Computerized systems will become more and more common (I’ve said before that knowing how to write code will be as important for my generation as knowing how to weld was for my grandpa’s), with smartphones and tablets becoming indispensible tools for most farmers regardless of size. Consumers will have better tools to trace the origin of their food.

The bad: Increasing regulations will hamper innovation and costs of compliance will discourage new farmers from starting up. 

The hopeful: Lines in the sand between such labels as “conventional”, “organic”, “modern”, “local”, etc. will fade as these sectors learn from each other and adopt each others’ practices as they fit into individual farming operations. Already we’re seeing expanded use of organic-style cover crops in farms that haven’t used them previously, and the “Eat Local” movement is recognizing the benefits of food systems covering larger areas. To summarize, I’m hopeful that we all start to work together instead of focusing on what makes us different.

What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?

Dealing with weather and markets. Though farming is generally a business that isn’t too dissimilar from other types of business, the inability to minimize weather risk will always be a unique challenge. We can raise crops and animals that work well in our areas, and we can irrigate where it’s available, but hail, wind, drought, freeze, and all other manners of weather that can have disastrous effects will always be a possibility.

Similarly, raising a crop that is a commodity means that we’re generally “price takers” in the market, which can be subject to all kinds of effects, from cattle herds in Texas to rainfall in Chicago to labor strife in Brazil. 

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

Raising commodity crops, we can look at futures markets to see what prices are being offered later this year and even two and three years into the future. We’ll use that information to help plan out what we will produce. Since we don’t sell directly to retailers, the responsibility to determine retailer needs falls upon the processors, who use that information to determine what they will pay for our crops.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

We have moved away from tillage as much as possible. This keeps the soil from eroding even when we have heavy rains or dry and windy conditions, and is made possible by the ability to control weeds with targeted pesticide applications. 

We monitor our soil moisture on every field and use this information to schedule irrigation, and have center pivots on all of our fields instead of “flood” irrigation systems. Both of these have resulted in greatly reduced use of groundwater for irrigation.

We write “prescriptions” for planting, fertilizing, and pesticide application to make sure each spot in the field is only getting what it needs, avoid over-application that can cause problems for the soil and adjacent areas.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

Our popcorn goes to a local processor (, with which we contract our production before the growing season. At harvest, we haul the popcorn from the field to the processing plant, where it is screened to get rid of non-popcorn matter, sorted for use type (movie theatre, microwave, etc.), and then packaged for shipping. This isn’t typical local marketing, though, since the popcorn will be used everywhere from local high school football games to Target stores’ cafes to movie theatres in Thailand.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person? 

All kinds. Nearly everyone is full of questions, which is always fun, even when they might be critical of certain aspects of our operation. (Most farmers are more than happy to tell you about what they raise and how they do it.) A lot of the time there will be some comment about not looking like a farmer, my favorite being the woman who told me, “You’re the most handsome farmer I’ve ever seen.”