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Published: Thursday, 4/24/2003

Regional popcorn crop sales exploding

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Popcorn consumption trends in the United States have grown stale, but the crop is popping for northwest Ohio farmers.

ConAgra Foods, Inc., which operates what is thought to be the world's largest microwave popcorn plant in Marion County, increased its popcorn contracts by 5 percent this year compared to last year, said Alan Harris, manager of the ConAgra Snack Foods plant.

He wouldn't say how many acres ConAgra has under contract, but Daryl Deering, president of Schlessman Seed Co., which raises popcorn seed north of Milan in Erie County, estimated ConAgra's contracts account for about three-fourths of the popcorn grown in Ohio. Almost all of Ohio's popcorn is in northwest Ohio.

Popcorn is just a kernel of a crop in Ohio, so small that the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service does not track its production. But its growth has exploded in recent years.

Northwest Ohio farmers last year planted more than 57,000 acres of popcorn, accounting for 20 percent of what is grown in the United States, according to the Popcorn Board trade group. That's up from 49,000 acres in 2001, the year that Ohio surpassed Illinois to become the third largest popcorn-producing state. Tops are Indiana and Nebraska.

That increased planting is good news for northwest Ohio, which has lost markets for sugar beets and processing tomatoes in recent years and relies heavily on the state's largest crops: soybeans and field corn, which is typically fed to livestock. Some agricultural economists say that turning a profit from soybeans in Ohio might become harder as South America raises a larger percentage of the world's crop.

Popcorn's profit potential is considered to be 15 percent higher than field corn's because the crop is more risky and more trouble. Popcorn, which grows on stalks that are a little shorter and thinner than field corn's, doesn't handle poor growing conditions - such as last year's drought - as well as field corn. If the crop isn't handled carefully, it won't pop.

Another plus for popcorn this year is a hand from Uncle Sam. The federal Farm Service Agency changed its regulations for this year's crop so that popcorn is eligible for more government aid.

The increases in Ohio's popcorn acreage come at an odd time.

Local popcorn growers blame the decreased demand on more competition from other snack foods.

“In the past three or four years, we've seen a lot of new products,” said Don Benschneider, president of Wildcat Creek Farms, Inc., in Paulding County. It markets popcorn under its name.

A ConAgra spokesman, however, said demand for microwave popcorn is growing, and operators of several smaller plants said they are increasing their acreage this year.

Metzger Popcorn, a third-generation company northeast of Delphos, plans to increase acreage for its Mello-Krisp brand, said Bob Metzger, an owner. So will Mr. Benschneider of Wildcat Creek.

Despite less popcorn production in the United States, a Purdue University researcher pointed to higher exports. That's good for Mr. Deering of Schlessman Seed.

“We're shipping a lot more seed to Europe and South America than we ever did,” he said.



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