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You're reading: Bad news for movie fans, U.S. drought hits popcorn crop

 CHICAGO - For more than half a century, the Shew family has harvested mountains of popcorn kernels to be buttered, salted and munched by movie fans.

But as a crippling Midwestern drought sends commodity
soybean and grain prices soaring, the family’s farmland in
west-central Indiana is suffering. Plants are listing, stalks
are spindly and corn ears small.

It’s an ill portent for the snack food world. All across the
Midwest, where rows of popcorn normally thrive alongside fields
of soybeans, U.S. popcorn farmers have watched in horror as
stifling, triple-digit temperatures and weeks without rain
withered crops.

“This is the worst season we’ve ever had,” said
third-generation popcorn purveyor Mark Shew, who runs the
family’s farm in Vigo County. “In some places, they’re going to
be down to counting kernels at the bottom of the storage bins.”

BUYERS LINING UP

The situation has had popcorn buyers — from small
mom-and-pop shops to larger food chains — scrambling for months
to line up their supplies for this fall. Their options are
limited.

Retail prices have jumped this summer: from about $20 for a
50 pound bag to $30 or higher, said Tim Caldwell, owner of Pop
It Rite, an Illinois-based popcorn industry expert and snack
foods consultant. Wholesale prices have started to creep up,
too, he said.

The hunt for product has staff at the Weaver Popcorn Company
Inc searching far and wide for supplies, said Matthew Johnson,
who grows for the Van Buren, Indiana firm.

He said his grower representative told him recently company
staff are wooing farmers in Louisiana and elsewhere in the
South, where the growing season typically starts and ends
earlier than the Midwest. They’re also scouting acreage in South
America, Johnson said, where farmers are preparing to plant
their crops in the coming weeks.

Officials for Weaver Popcorn could not be reached for
comment Friday.

HIGHER POPCORN PRICES UNLIKELY AT THEATERS

While consumers may have to pay more for the snack at the
grocery store soon, some analysts say the chances of prices
rising for a bucket of movie theater popcorn are slim.

“The popcorn portion of the product is a very low percentage
of the price, and the prices are already so high, I think
consumers would balk if they went up any higher,” said Bob
Goldin, director of the food supplier practice at Technomic Inc.

The popcorn industry — which sold $985.7 million in 2010
worth of unpopped kernels, down 2.2 percent from five years
earlier — is barely an economic nibble out of the country’s
corn world. Most of the popcorn consumed worldwide is grown in
the United States. Export demand for the fluffy, crunchy snack
has been slowly rising in recent years from China and Russia.

Still, more than 80 percent of U.S. popcorn production is
consumed domestically, according to research by the Ag Marketing
Resource Center at Iowa State University. The Popcorn Board, an
industry trade group, said Americans munch 16 billion quarts of
popped popcorn a year.

Eager to feed that appetite, Midwestern farmers say they
have long used popcorn, a bit player in the field, as a
companion crop for filling up more marginal ground around their
field corn and soybeans.

During even the toughest times popcorn can provide an
economic boost for those willing to fuss over the plants, as
long as the weather stays mild. But when temperatures soared,
the crops withered.

The poor weather fueled recent supply concerns for popcorn
buyers, said Norm Krug, chief executive officer of Preferred
Popcorn, a Nebraska-based, farmer-owned cooperative that
supplies popcorn to movie theaters and others.

As prices for commodity corn, used as livestock feed, and
soybean hit record highs, Midwestern farmers shifted more of
their land to those crops, Krug said.

That competition for land, said Krug, steadily dropped the
amount of U.S. planted popcorn acreage to about 190,000 acres
(76,890 hectares) last year, according to farmer surveys his
group had conducted. The most recent federal data, from 2007,
shows that U.S. farmers harvested nearly 202,000 acres (81,747
hectares).

Farmers may have planted even fewer acres this year, Krug
said. That left fewer popcorn plants to harvest.

“Most seed growers I know are not taking new customers,
because they’re afraid that they won’t have enough supplies to
meet their current demand for their present customers in the
fourth quarter,” said Pop It Rite’s Caldwell.

‘MAY LOSE THE CROP’

In Nebraska, the nation’s leading producer of the tasty
yellow and white kernels, popcorn farmers with irrigation are
thankful they’ve been spared.

“The dry land fields? Those will be pretty much zero
,” said Mark McHargue, who farms 230 acres (93
hectares) of yellow popcorn in Central City, Nebraska.

In southern Wisconsin, where irrigation is less prevalent,
farmers worried recent rains would have little effect on a crop
that struggled through the driest planting season in decades.

And in Indiana, where sizzling weather has devastated large
swaths of farmland and shortened the pollination cycle to only a
few days, farmers fear strong winds from the remnants of
Hurricane Isaac could flatten their already hard-hit fields.

“As you walk through the fields, you have to be careful
because if you touch a stalk too hard, it will fall over,” said
Johnson, who farms 1,200 acres (486 hectares) of popcorn at his
family’s farm in Jay County, in eastern Indiana. “We get
anything 30 mile an hour, we’ll lose what crop we have.”

(Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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