January 19, 2022, is National Popcorn Day. While I doubt Hallmark makes a card for that, popcorn has played a significant role in the history of Ohio agriculture. Until recently, Ohio was third in popcorn production nationally behind Nebraska and Indiana, but in the last few years, Ohio’s popcorn production has dropped significantly and that has meant significant production changes on many Ohio farms.
What has changed?
The most impactful change came several years ago when one of the popcorn industry giants sold its popcorn processing facility in central Ohio and severed its relationship with growers in the Buckeye state. Most of these production acres moved to Nebraska. Some local growers continued to raise popcorn, but after just a few years, production contracts became very scarce. Historically, most popcorn production in Ohio has been under contract, so with an abundance of potential acres and few companies writing contracts, prices for popcorn stagnated. The premiums that producers had come to expect from this value-added specialty crop had all but diminished.
Like most specialty crops, popcorn production looks less appealing (at least relatively) when commodity prices are high. In 2021, historically high corn yields that were realized in many parts of the state combined with strong commodity prices has removed the luster of popcorn production even further. This has forced some long-time popcorn producers to re-evaluate their production plans because the profitability of the crop is no longer better than field corn or soybeans as it has been historically.
For many farms that have produced popcorn in the past, the crop has intrinsic value that is hard to walk away from. Perhaps it stems from the idea that popcorn is something different than the norm or a nice alternative crop that requires no additional equipment to manage. As a former popcorn grower myself, I miss the aspect of producing a high quality product that requires very little processing to become a desirable snack food.
While it’s unlikely that popcorn acres in Ohio will increase dramatically in the short term, never say “never again”. Nebraska, which is now the largest producer of popcorn, grows most of its crop on irrigated fields in areas that have ever increasing concerns about the availability of water. Ohio remains a player in the popcorn production game, and we stand poised to increase production if the opportunity presents itself. Ohio has the soils and the climate to raise excellent popcorn and we can usually produce the crop without adding water.