NORTH LOUP - In this quiet central Nebraska farming community, popcorn is not just a snack. It's a way of life.
Central to the tiny village of 339 - which dubs itself the "Popcorn Capital of the Country" - is MORMAC, the local popcorn processor and distributor.
Any resident with a craving for the fluffy white snack can simply go down to MORMAC and pick up a free bag.
"It's kind of a birthright of anybody in town," said MORMAC President Bill Brush.
North Loup has long contributed to Nebraska's burgeoning popcorn industry, which leads the nation in overall production.
According to figures recently released by the Popcorn Board, an industry marketing group, Nebraska produced more than 326 million pounds of popcorn in 2003. That compares with about 250 million pounds produced in Indiana and 203 million pounds in Ohio last year.
"Many people may not realize that we have an outstanding popcorn production industry in Nebraska, adding strength to our overall agricultural industry," said Christin Brown, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
Other leading popcorn producing states include Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri.
Valley County, in which North Loup is located, produced just more than 1.3 million shelled pounds of popcorn in 2002, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture's most recent study. Holt County led the state with more than 53 million pounds produced that year, followed by Antelope County with more than 29 million pounds.
North Loup's claim to fame isn't based solely on production numbers, said Village Board Chairman Sonny Sheldon. The title has more to do with the community's long-standing commitment to the crop.
Popcorn production dates back to North Loup's founding in the late 1870s. At one time there were as many as five popcorn producers in the area.
Farmer Roger Lansman, who grows about 120 acres of popcorn on his 1,000-acre farm near Ord, is proud to be part of the tradition. He said keeping the local popcorn industry alive is healthy for the community.
"That tradition would go on whether or not I grew popcorn," he said. "Someone else would."
In North Loup, the heart of the tradition takes form in an annual three-day celebration in August when the Popcorn Days celebration is held to provide respite and revelry for the popcorn farmers before the big harvest. The festival, which is in its 103rd year, includes a parade, crowning of a Popcorn Queen, music and, of course, popcorn.
On the edge of town, not far from where rolling cornfields meet the town's borders, sit MORMAC's headquarters.
Machines inside a red barn sort the good kernels from the imperfect ones. The kernels that don't make the cut are destined to be used for bird seed or cow feed.
Trains roll into town behind the processing plant, where packaged kernels are loaded onto boxcars and shipped to destinations around the world.
Near the plant is a two-story white farmhouse that serves as the company's main office. Desks and computers fill the spots where living room furniture might sit.
The name MORMAC may not be as recognizable as other popcorn producers, primarily because the 20-year-old company is not in the microwave popcorn business, Brush said. Instead, its focus is the theater business, with a niche in independent theaters. MORMAC does about $4 million in annual sales, Brush said.
The popcorn industry has faced new challenges in recent years, Brush said. A greater focus on health and trans fat has MORMAC and other popcorn makers looking at ways to make a more healthful popcorn.
The industry also is adjusting to recent lawsuits involving popcorn workers who claim their lungs were damaged from breathing popcorn flavoring. Brush said overall his business hasn't been affected because the lung disease has only been found in microwave popcorn packing plants.
As with any crop, there are many challenges facing those who grow popcorn, process it and get it to market. But the folks in North Loup have dealt with them all and are determined to stick with it.
"Nothing changes in these little towns," Sheldon said.