Growers and processors across the popcorn belt report exceptional quality, with record-level yields in some areas.

By Dario Bard

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Before the combines rolled out, expectations for the 2013 U.S. popcorn harvest were low, reflecting concerns about sub-par quality and below-average yields due to a late planted crop and spotty weather during the growing season. But as the crop has come in, growers have been pleasantly surprised; the top popcorn-growing states are reporting record-level yields and crop quality has been described as exceptional across the popcorn belt.

“Even the worst quality description I heard from processors was good,” says Popcorn Board Chair Richard Duty. “So from a quality standpoint, our crop is very good this year.”

“The quality is some of the best I’ve seen during my years in the business,” seconds Norm Krug of Nebraska-based Preferred Popcorn. “We had a nice, slow dry down, which helps popcorn perform well.”

The absence of heat stress also contributed to the quality of this year’s crop, says Duty. “Plus,” he continues, “we didn’t have excessive heat during pollination, and that helped yields.”

Record-Level Yields in Nebraska and Indiana

Duty has heard reports of high quality across the board, but he notes some variations in terms of yields.

The U.S. popcorn belt extends from central Ohio to north eastern Colorado. According to Duty, “The areas that seem to have done the best are the far eastern parts of the popcorn belt, and then down in an arc into southern Indiana and western Kentucky into Missouri.”

Duty also points out that yields can be expected to vary by as much as 50 percent between irrigated fields and dryland. “In the irrigated fields of the western popcorn belt, we are seeing some yields as high as 7000 pounds to the acre, and that is not typical; 5500 to 6000 pounds is what you’d expect in a typical year. On dryland, you’d typically expect yields in the high 3000 to low 4000 pound range.” Based on reports over the last ten years, the national average stands between 4200 to 4500 pounds per acre; this figure is weighed down by the predominance of dryland acreage in the Mid-West, explains Duty.

Nebraska and Indiana are the top two popcorn growing states. In Indiana, Wilfred Sieg of Ramsey Popcorn Company says yields, which came in at 4,000 to 4,500 pounds per acre, were at historic levels, up 20 to 30 percent above normal.

“It’s kind of ironic,” he reflects. “Last year was the worst year I’ve ever seen, with yields 50 percent below normal, and now this is one of the best crops I’ve ever seen.”

In the irrigated fields of Nebraska, yields were even higher. Mark McHargue, Vice President of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, says his fields in south central Nebraska typically yield 5,000 to 5,500 pounds per acre; this year, yields came in at 6500 pounds per acre. According to McHargue, his experience is the rule, not the exception across Nebraska.

A Uniformly Good Crop

An unusual yet positive characteristic of the 2013 harvest is that it was uniformly good quality across the board.

“Sometimes,” says McHargue, “one variety performs better than others, but this year, even older popcorn varieties performed better than normal.”

“We grow a pretty broad area that includes five or six states,” says Sieg. “The reason we diversify geographically is because you tend to see one area do well and another not so well. But this year, it just so happened that in every area, the rains came as they should and the temperatures were good.”

Although the news coming from the popcorn fields is uniformly good, Duty points out that a significant amount of the crop is still in the fields. “Of the companies I spoke with, only one told me his harvest was done, and that it concluded in late October. Another said he was at 95 percent, but the balance of the companies I spoke with said their harvest progress was between 30 percent and 80 percent.”

The longer the crop stays out in the field, the higher the risk of wet weather affecting quality and yields.

Carryover Stocks Remain Tight

But even with the results that are in thus far, the 2013 crop represents a welcome about-face from the drought-stricken campaigns of 2011 and 2012.

“In 2011, we lost about 30 percent of our crop,” recalls Sieg. “And last year, even though we expect our yields to average 3500 pounds to the acre, there were fields that we were lucky to even get 300 pounds per acre out of.”

The effects of the meager production of the 2011 and 2012 campaigns in the U.S. were compounded by similarly poor harvests in Argentina, sending popcorn prices skyrocketing to record levels. In this context, as good as the 2013 harvest has been, Duty describes it as a “hold-in-place” crop.

“We’re not getting the recovery crops we need to rebuild stocks,” assesses Duty. “This year, we had below average acreage and above average yields, so that implies a fairly normal crop. In the past, I’d say a normal U.S. popcorn crop would come in at a billion pounds, but this year I’d say it’s between 900 million and one billion pounds, probably closer to 900 million. So that keeps us in the tight situation we are in stock-wise. We aren’t losing ground, but I’m not sure we are making any up, either.”

Krug is not as concerned about the carryover situation. In his opinion, the 2013 crop is sufficient to keep the cinema industry supplied and prices stable. “I feel it is just the right size. It will allow us to supply the industry worldwide with high-quality popcorn. Sure, we’re not going to have carryover, but popcorn is good fresh. You can store it a long time if you need to, but we prefer to keep it fresh, and so I’d say the industry is in a very good situation where we have a nice crop and we have enough demand to use it up.”

Duty, however, would like to see stocks recover, and he believes it will take several good harvests to get the industry back to normal. “One thing that I find encouraging is that the price of field corn has come down significantly and that could create the opportunity for us to plant a very large crop this spring. Supposing that happens, that still means we won’t have full recovery from the shortage until October 2014 at the earliest.”

Worldwide Demand on the Rise

Meanwhile, the worldwide demand for popcorn continues to increase. Preferred Popcorn exports half its production to more than 60 countries, and Krug says he is seeing demand on the rise, particularly in Asia among countries such as China, Japan, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. “The cinema industry was not that big in Asia previously, but it’s growing rapidly now. I think we’ll see exports to that part of the world increase.”

Back on the other side of the Pacific, popcorn planting in Argentina and Brazil is being hampered by a shortage of seed. Brazil is the world’s second largest popcorn consumer, behind the United States. A spike in demand is expected in mid-2014, when Brazil hosts the FIFA World Cup.

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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist