For more than half a century, the Shew family has harvested mountains of popcorn kernels to be buttered, salted and munched by movie fans.
However, 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 is an ill portent for the snack food world. All across the Midwest, where rows of popcorn normally thrive alongside fields of soybeans, US 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.”
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 US$20 for a 22.7kg bag to US$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 Co 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 US south, where the growing season typically starts and ends earlier than the midwest. They are 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 on Friday.
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.
The popcorn industry — which sold US$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 US. Export demand for the fluffy, crunchy snack has been slowly rising in recent years from China and Russia.
Still, more than 80 percent of US 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 15.14 billion liters 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.