Califonia Bountiful

Earning its wings

May/June 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Butterfly popcorn is the crunchy key to this flavorful snack




Sherry Soleski and husband Jeff Phillips order a ton of yellow butterfly popcorn each month to make five flavored snacking varieties at Comet Corn Popcorn. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Very few people curl up to watch a movie at home and stop to consider the characteristics of the popcorn they're munching.

But if you ask the husband-and-wife team behind Comet Corn Popcorn to describe the kind of popcorn most fitting for the snacks they produce, they'll be quick to tell you it's the large yellow butterfly variety.

They should know. For years, they've ordered a ton of organic popcorn each month from Pleasant Grove Farms in Sutter County.

The large yellow butterfly variety provides a perfectly crunchy base for the dry-seasoned snacks made by Comet Corn Popcorn, said Jeff Phillips, who calls himself the Chief Popping Officer of the Sonoma County company.

"We've used Pleasant Grove Farms popcorn since 2004 and it's part of the reason we've been successful," Phillips said. "The kernels are so fresh. We like the size of the yellow butterfly. It doesn't break up that much."

"It also has more nooks and crannies to catch the seasoning," added his wife, Sherry Soleski, known as the company's Queen of Corn.


Comet Corn Popcorn, based in Sonoma County, is made with popcorn from Pleasant Grove Farms in Sutter County. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Wings as flavor pockets

The "wings" of butterfly popcorn create pockets of flavor in each bite of Comet Corn, including varieties such as nutritional yeast-coated Hippie Dust or sea salt-sprinkled Sel-estial popcorn—two of the most popular of the company's five flavors.

The uneven shape of butterfly popcorn distinguishes it from the other basic popcorn variety: mushroom. Mushroom popcorn is round and sturdy, making it better suited for making candy-coated snacks such as caramel corn, which is popped, glazed and cooked again.

But making dry-flavored snacks looks different in the Comet Corn Popshop in Santa Rosa, where a crew of five processes about 2,000 pounds of popcorn each month.

They start by seasoning and popping the kernels using organic sunflower oil from Arbuckle-based Adams Vegetable Oils. Once the popcorn cools, it's set on a retrofitted shaker table, where unpopped kernels and excess seasoning are parted from the whole, flavored popcorn. The popcorn is weighed into 4-ounce portions, then bagged and packed for distribution to more than 100 retail outlets throughout Northern California.


A hands-on crew of five oversees the popping, seasoning and packaging operation at Comet Corn Popcorn. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Popped but not broken

Since 2002, Phillips and Soleski have popped and sold fresh Comet Corn at festivals and events throughout Northern California. To expand their retail business, they offered samples in stores and sold their snacks to busy wineries and breweries.

But a lot changed in 2020.

The pandemic put a halt to events, in-store sampling, and on-site tastings at wineries and breweries. Fortunately, Comet Corn retail and online sales remained strong, the couple said. Then tragedy struck: Last fall, they lost their home near Santa Rosa in the Glass Fire.

But they never stopped popping at Comet Corn.

"We had to get people their popcorn," Soleski said. "The business gave us a reason to hang on during a very challenging time. We continued to do what we love."

Soleski summed up their business this way: "Our job is to make people happy—and we also happen to make delicious popcorn."

For years, Soleski and Phillips have also continued a happy tradition of setting aside a few bags of Comet Corn for their suppliers, including Pleasant Grove Farms.


Pleasant Grove Farms has been a family operation since 1946. The third generation includes Jessica Sills, left, surveying a cornfield with her parents, Wynette and Ed Sills. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

The farm connection

Pleasant Grove Farms has been in operation since the late Tom Sills began growing rice in 1946. Tom's son, Ed, worked summers on the farm as a young man, and these days he farms and manages the 3,500-acre, third-generation family farm just north of Sacramento. But it wasn't always where he pictured himself.

"When I was going to college and through high school, I wasn't sure I wanted to run the farm for my dad," he remembered.

He studied forestry in college and worked in seasonal jobs with the U.S. Forest Service, developing an interest in environmental issues and ecology. In 1976, Sills returned to the farm to give it a shot.

"Over the next 10 years or so, I got an idea of what farming was like," Sills said.

He kept an eye on California's slowly emerging organics market. When California became the first state to attach a legal definition to the term "organic" with the California Organic Food Act of 1979, Sills saw a better future for the farm.

In 1985, the Sillses grew their first organic crop of popcorn on 40 acres, and planted nearly three times that the following year. Almost two decades later, the family's farming methods attracted the proprietors of Comet Corn.

"We were so impressed that Ed's been organic for so long," Soleski said. "We are really proud to use his product."


Once harvested, popcorn is either immediately processed or stored in temperature- and moisture-controlled grain bins to maintain its quality throughout the year. Photo: © 2021 Manny Crisostomo

Working with natural systems

Sills and his wife, Wynette, have made working with natural systems a key tenet of their farming philosophy. In addition to different varieties of popcorn, they grow several types of beans, wheat, rice, corn and triticale.

A primary technique of Pleasant Grove Farms is the planting of vetch and other cover crops, which provides nitrogen for future crops, builds organic soil matter and reduces the need for fertilizer.

The farmers also employ crop rotation, rotating which crops grow in the same field according to the year and season. Sills said this helps combat pests and weeds, and also incorporates leftover plant material such as stalks and straw into the soil.

In 2017, the Sillses installed solar panels that supply the electricity to run their 500-acre home ranch, which includes four wells and the mill where their products are cleaned and processed. They also installed a tailwater recovery system, with the help of a federal program, which doubles as a sediment pond. This allows them to collect runoff water and soil for re-use.

"Our philosophy is, you can't stand still for success in today's world," Sills said. "You need to keep moving forward."


"Popcorn is a unique variety of corn," says farmer Ed Sills. Pleasant Grove Farms produces four kinds of popcorn. Photo: © 2021 Manny Crisostomo

In 2010, Tom Sills passed away at age 94. Today, Ed, Wynette and each of their three adult children have had a hand in the family business.

Their daughter Kate is a computer programmer who helped develop the online inventory system for Pleasant Grove Farms. Son Andrew worked on the farm during summer breaks from college before joining the military in 2018. He plans to return and take on a managerial role after his military career.

Younger daughter Jessica has worked on the farm full time since 2014, managing the office, including bookkeeping and client contracts. Although she studied mathematics at California State University, Sacramento, and was on track to become a teacher, she found herself missing the farm and the memories it held. She decided to return to her roots.

Now in his mid-60s, Ed Sills sees himself eventually stepping back and leaving the management of the farm to the next generation.

"I don't think I'll ever retire, but I would like to pull back a little as I get older and have my kids run more of the business," he said. "It's a really good family environment, the farm is."

Kate Gonzales and Jolaine Collins


Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

Pop-pop!

One thing that surprises many people about popcorn is that it's different than the kind of corn that's eaten off the cob.

"Popcorn is a unique variety of corn," said Ed Sills, farmer and manager of Pleasant Grove Farms. "It's different from the very beginning."

Pleasant Grove Farms produces four kinds of popcorn, each with specific characteristics, sizes and textures. Varieties include:

  • Yellow butterfly popcorn: This is the kind sold at movie theaters, yellow in hue with a nice crunch. Pleasant Grove Farms grows small and large yellow butterfly popcorn.

  • Yellow mushroom popcorn: Named for its mushroom-like appearance, this popcorn's starch is concentrated in a globe at the top of the popped kernel. It holds up well in the production of glazed snacks, such as candy corn.

  • White popcorn: This popcorn is more tender than yellow butterfly and pops a brighter white. It's the popcorn typically sold in stores for popping at home.

  • Multicolored popcorn: Pleasant Grove Farms grows red, yellow, white and blue popcorn separately, before mixing them together. Multicolored varieties tend to be higher in antioxidants.


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