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April 14, 2003

Eating popcorn less a consuming interest in U.S., researcher says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – If he were still living, Orville Redenbacher might need extra butter to digest the news: Americans are consuming less popcorn than a decade ago.

The opposite is true in other parts of the world, however.

Should the trends continue, leading popcorn-producing states, such as Indiana, might need to look beyond the United States for future market growth, said a Purdue University researcher.

While the United States remains the single largest consumer of popcorn worldwide, retail sales have slipped after more than 20 years of steady increases, said Cole Ehmke, a research associate with Purdue's Center for Food and Agricultural Business. The center is part of Purdue's Department of Agricultural Economics.

"Popcorn consumption peaked in the U.S. in 1993. Since then, it's been on a slightly downward trend," Ehmke said. "However, popcorn consumption worldwide is going up a little bit, particularly in South America, Europe and Asia. The Chinese and Brazilians are familiar with popcorn, and they're increasing their consumption."

Retail sales of unpopped popcorn reached 1.15 billion pounds in the United States in 1993, according to The Popcorn Board, a nonprofit trade promotion organization. By 2000 sales had dipped to 980 million pounds. Popcorn sales experienced a modest recovery in 2001, to just over 1 billion pounds.

The export picture is brighter, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Popcorn exports climbed more than 39 million pounds from 1999 to 2000, topping 245.33 million pounds.

Domestic popcorn sales accelerated rapidly in the 1980s with the introduction of microwave popcorn, Ehmke said. As to why consumption is now trending down, he theorized that consumers' tastes are shifting from popcorn to other processed snack foods. Retail sales of potato chips are outpacing popcorn, he said.

Internationally, popcorn exports are up, in part, because consumers in many foreign nations are just starting to discover popcorn, Ehmke said.

U.S. popcorn growers and processors can expand international market share if they are aggressive, he said. Competition is heating up in places like Argentina, where farmers have expanded popcorn acreage from 1,000 acres to 10,000 acres over the past 15 years.

"Popcorn breeders that I've talked with are always looking for places to sell their popcorn seed," Ehmke said. "The new popcorn processors seem to be in Europe and South America. A lot of the South American production goes into Brazil or is exported to Europe. Popcorn isn't native to Europe, but the people are demanding it, so we're supplying it. The next few years look promising for exports."

A farmer considering popcorn as an alternative crop must understand the specialty grain is marketed differently than commodity dent corn.

"The thing for a farmer to remember about popcorn is that it's a contracted crop," Ehmke said. "If you're going to grow it you have to know who to sell it to.

"Popcorn is contracted on a per-pound basis. Farmers get their seed from a popcorn processor because processors have very specific requirements. They want to have a certain size kernel, a kernel that's a certain color, they want it to look a certain way and they want it to expand in a certain way. Processors become familiar with the characteristics of how their popcorn works, so they have a list of seeds that a popcorn farmer can grow."

Popcorn is grown much like commodity corn, although yields are about one-third smaller than dent corn.

"It's not a lot different to grow than regular corn," Ehmke said. "It's a slightly smaller plant, so you would need to take care that you use the proper pesticide rates. Popcorn is primarily produced in Indiana, Nebraska, Illinois and Ohio. Nebraska and Indiana account for about half the nation's production. A lot of the popcorn in Nebraska is irrigated, so they have very high yields. Indiana has excellent growing conditions, so Indiana has been a major popcorn grower and exporter for a long time."

Indiana farmers produced 225 million pounds of popcorn on 75,000 harvested acres in 2002, according to the Purdue-based Indiana Agricultural Statistics Service. Production was off 60 million pounds from 2001 but nearly 30 million pounds above 2000.

"Popcorn can be profitable," Ehmke said. "A farmer would probably earn 9 to 10 cents a pound, depending on what the market is for that year."

Indiana's 2002 popcorn crop was valued at $22.05 million.

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415, sleer@purdue.edu

Sources: Cole Ehmke, (765) 494-4262, ehmke@purdue.edu

Wendy Boersema, The Popcorn Board, (312) 644-6610, wboersema@sba.com

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, bforbes@aes.purdue.edu; http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/AgComm/public/agnews/

Related Web site:
Purdue Extension Publication NCH-5, "Popcorn Production and Marketing"


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