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 a scene repeated across the Midwest and an ill portent for the snack food world.
“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 popcorn buyers — big and small — scrambling to line up their supplies. Small mom-and-pop shops have seen prices jump from about $20 for a 50 pound bag to $30 or higher. Large distributors are trying to source new supplies by wooing farmers in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South into growing popping corn, as their growing season typically starts and ends earlier than the Midwest. They’re also scouting acreage in South America.
That may be a tough sell.
High prices for commodity corn in recent years has seen a slow but steady decrease in popcorn acreage, which was down to about 190,000 acres last year.
However, moviegoers may be spared.
“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 confectionery supplier Bob Goldin.