A dry field of corn is seen near Ashland, Nebraska, 9 August 2012. The latest U.S. drought map shows that excessively dry conditions continue to worsen in the Midwest states that are key producers of corn and soybeans. This is the worst U.S. drought in decades. The Associated Press

By P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz
2 September 2012

CHICAGO (Reuters) – For more than half a century, the Shew family has harvested mountains of popcorn kernels to be buttered, salted and munched by movie fans.

But as a crippling Midwestern drought sends commodity soybean and grain prices soaring, the family's farmland in west-central Indiana is suffering. Plants are listing, stalks are spindly and corn ears small.

It's an ill portent for the snack food world. All across the Midwest, where rows of popcorn normally thrive alongside fields of soybeans, U.S. popcorn farmers have watched in horror as stifling, triple-digit temperatures and weeks without rain withered crops.

"This is the worst season we've ever had," said third-generation popcorn purveyor Mark Shew, who runs the family's farm in Vigo County. "In some places, they're going to be down to counting kernels at the bottom of the storage bins."

The situation has had popcorn buyers – from small mom-and-pop shops to larger food chains – scrambling for months to line up their supplies for this fall. Their options are limited.

Retail prices have jumped this summer: from about $20 for a 50 pound bag to $30 or higher, said Tim Caldwell, owner of Pop It Rite, an Illinois-based popcorn industry expert and snack foods consultant. Wholesale prices have started to creep up, too, he said.

The hunt for product has staff at the Weaver Popcorn Company Inc searching far and wide for supplies, said Matthew Johnson, who grows for the Van Buren, Indiana firm.

He said his grower representative told him recently company staff are wooing farmers in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, where the growing season typically starts and ends earlier than the Midwest. They're also scouting acreage in South America, Johnson said, where farmers are preparing to plant their crops in the coming weeks.

Officials for Weaver Popcorn could not be reached for comment Friday.

While consumers may have to pay more for the snack at the grocery store soon, some analysts say the chances of prices rising for a bucket of movie theater popcorn are slim.

"The popcorn portion of the product is a very low percentage of the price, and the prices are already so high, I think consumers would balk if they went up any higher," said Bob Goldin, director of the food supplier practice at Technomic Inc. […]

Bad news for movie fans, U.S. drought hits popcorn crop

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