Indiana Ranks No. 2 in the U.S. for Popcorn Production
Brian Churchill admits more fascination with the buckets of popcorn at the theater than any box-office hit.
“There is not a greater joy I have in this business than going to a movie and watching people sit there and eat our popcorn,” says Churchill, a popcorn farmer and manager of the Preferred Popcorn processing plant in Harrison County.
Churchill is certainly in the right business for his location. Indiana ranks as the nation’s No. 2 producer of popcorn, behind only Nebraska, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Indiana farmers harvested more than 352 million pounds of popcorn for various companies, including Preferred, in 2017.
Movies theaters represent the largest domestic customer for Preferred Popcorn, a farmer-owned popcorn production company with facilities in Indiana and Nebraska and popcorn farmers across seven states. Aside from theaters, U.S. consumers buy Preferred-grown popcorn under various major brand names at the grocery store in anything from pre-popped to microwavable forms. They consume it at sporting events and cafés, too.
Yet, half the company’s popcorn ships internationally, making Preferred the largest exporter of bulk popcorn in the world, Churchill says. The company consistently sells to 40 different countries and even grows popcorn in China and India, where farmers plant it by hand.
Quality Spurs Growth
Churchill celebrates his 40th year growing popcorn in 2019, and he’s worked for Preferred for nearly 10 years, ever since the company purchased Preston Farms, a popcorn company in Palmyra.
Since that 2010 purchase, Preferred has more than doubled the capacity through this plant, which employs 25 people. In 2018, the Indiana plant’s 50 growers produced 90 million pounds of popcorn on 19,000 acres – most of them in Indiana and some in Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.
“It’s a great company to be a part of,” Churchill says. “We’re a family business, and we have a very good group of employees and growers. We work as a team to supply a good, quality product.”
Churchill attributes the company’s growth to that uncompromising product quality. For example, Preferred sends popcorn through two different color sorters before bagging. Those machines remove damaged kernels and extract unwanted foreign material (FM) such as cobs or weed seed that may have grown in the field, lowering the company’s FM rate to one-tenth of 1%.
“Our quality starts with how farmers treat the corn from the time they plant it to the time they deliver it to our plant,” Churchill says. “We’re looking for growers willing to take the time to set machinery accurately to reduce damage on the kernels, because scratched kernels will not pop. They become ‘old maids’ at the bottom of your bag or tub at the movie theater.”
See more: 8 Farm Facts About Popcorn
Supporting Local Farm Profits
Tom Boyd, his son Trent and son-in-law Logan planted 4,200 acres of popcorn this year, making Boyd Grain Farm the largest Indiana grower for Preferred Popcorn. Tom, a 50-year member of the Daviess County Farm Bureau, says his family has grown popcorn since the late 1970s.
Growing popcorn adds a specialty crop to the farm mix, which also includes field corn production, warehouses and a trucking operation. Growing a food-grade crop takes more time with machinery cleanouts and handling, but generally generates a premium over field corn for the effort.
“Any time you’re dealing with food-grade and specialty items, you have to go through a lot of time and measures,” Trent says. “Our employees have learned what ‘popcorn clean’ is and get in the rhythm of knowing how to do it, and you get paid for the extra effort you go through to do it.”
The Boyds praise Preferred as a great partner that provides a specialty crop market for their farm and fellow farmers.
“You definitely have to have a good contract and good people to work with,” Tom says. “Preferred has treated us wonderfully.”
Matching the End Use
Preferred’s farmers grow up to 16 different varieties of popcorn to match the end use, from a light and tender theater-style popcorn to a round mushroom type that coats well with caramel.
Jackson County farmer Don Shoemaker and his father, Eugene, grow yellow butterfly popcorn, popular for use in movie theaters. His family added popcorn to their lineup of field corn, seed soybeans and beef cattle about five years ago, shortly after Don and his wife, Jennifer, won the Indiana Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Achievement Award. The award recognizes young farmers with commendable community service and farm management techniques.
While growing popcorn takes more management, it provides a potential premium over field corn and works well with the farm’s equipment and land base.
“Popcorn fits nicely in the puzzle to increase diversity on the farm and have a niche market,” Shoemaker says. “It’s also fun having something that goes to a final customer and see direct use.”
See more: 9 Poppin’ Popcorn Recipes