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Popcorn drought hits US movie theaters (+video)

Popcorn drought in the Midwest has movie theaters and other vendors scrambling to keep their supplies stocked through the fall. The popcorn drought has sent retail prices soaring from $20 per 50-pound bag to $30 and higher.

By P.J. HuffstutterReuters / September 4, 2012

Farmer Matt Johnson kneels in his popcorn crop fields near a sprayer on his family's farm in Redkey, Ind. in this June 2012 file photo. American popcorn farmers have watched in horror as soaring triple-digit temperatures and weeks without rain has resulted in a popcorn drought that has left corn stands stunted and crops withered.

Brent Smith/Reuters/File

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

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But as a crippling Midwestern drought sends commodity soybean and grain prices soaring, the family's farmland in west-central Indiana is suffering from a popcorn drought. 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.

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