American popcorn farmers get creative, as many movie theaters still dark

Meanwhile, Jolly Time, Pop Secret, Orville Redenbacher and other microwave popcorn brands have seen double-digit surges in sales year over year since March as families have sheltered in place, drawing succor from Netflixing and a fat mixing bowl of butter-dappled kernels.

But the farmers who service movie theaters and other group events are different, with different customer bases and sales strategies. They do not have machinery for microwave retail packaging. They do not have contracts with major grocery stores or brand names the general public would recognize. They build their annual business on time-honored truths: Blockbusters in the summer and Academy Award aspirants in the winter holidays that draw big theater crowds. The Boys of Summer draw popcorn noshers to ballparks and fair goers on the midway crave kettle corn.

One of the country’s largest suppliers of movie theater popcorn, Preferred Popcorn, was started 22 years ago by a group of Nebraska farmers.

“My grandpa worked at a popcorn processing facility in Chapman,” says Andrea Plucker, director of marketing for Preferred. “He said, ‘Hey, this is a higher value crop, let’s give it a go.’ ”

Based in Chapman, Neb., Preferred has installed seven new silos to hold excess product. They will hold 15,925,000 pounds of popcorn kernels, says Plucker, while doing some math. Each pound of kernels will produce about five 130-ounce tubs — those are the jumbo buckets beloved by moviegoers — so the excess kernels stored in these seven bins would provide roughly 80 million tubs of popcorn.

Popcorn, one of the oldest types of corn, found in Mayan temple ruins, is harvested at the end of September, once the kernels are dry on the stalks. It is different from sweet corn that humans eat or field corn — generally called “dent” corn because of a little dimple that forms at the crown of each kernel when it ripens — that becomes animal feed, oils and ethanol. There is butterfly popcorn with fluffy big flakes that mostly goes to movie theaters, the mushroom variety that makes a really round kernel perfect for caramel corn. There is a “miracle mushroom” variety prized by kettle corn producers and a kind of butterfly corn that is better suited to being tumbled in a cheesy coating.

All of them are poised for harvest. And that’s a problem.

Americans eat 70 percent of their popcorn at home and 30 percent at theaters and other events, according to the Popcorn Board. But Preferred Popcorn — owned by five farm families who work with 100 growers across the Midwest — sells more than half of its kernels to the big U.S. theater chains in 50- and 100-pound bags. Sometimes, sales are direct to theater chains, but more frequently the deals are with the distributors who also deliver Milk Duds, Good & Plenty and soda to theaters every couple weeks (theaters do not have lots of dry storage space, so it is a “just in time” supply chain model).

Crop progress reports from the Farm Services Agency generally say there are about 96 million acres planted in dent corn, compared with about 300,000 acres of popcorn annually.

When the pandemic hit, Preferred did not have a retail presence in stores — theaters and events went dark, and the kernels had nowhere to go. And with grocery stores swamped with panicked shoppers, it was not an ideal time to make sales pitches and launch a new retail brand.

Time was ticking, and the corn was sitting. It will last about a year, after that it’s too dry: What makes popcorn pop is an internal moisture level of 13.5 percent, stored inside a circle of soft starch. Plucker reached out on Facebook to Misfits Market, a produce subscription service that delivers “ugly” but perfectly edible food as a means of combating food waste.

“The food supply chain has been disrupted in meaningful ways by the pandemic. Our goal is to serve a pretty unique purpose in that supply chain,” says Misfits founder Abhi Ramesh. “Movie theater popcorn has been so stable for the past 50 years — growers could easily anticipate how much would be needed based on release dates.”

By June, he had bought multiple truckloads of Preferred’s popcorn, 40,000 pounds of kernels. The problem was packaging.

“We work with Preferred to repack the giant bags into 28-ounce household bags, branded with Preferred Popcorn as a way to get recognized by consumers,” Ramesh says. He says that while some theaters are reopening, he anticipates it will be many months before movie popcorn sales resume historic numbers.

Plucker says the big “butterfly” flakes are usually reserved for movie theaters (those big kernels fill up the tubs quicker), so typically are not directly available to consumers. No word on whether Misfits aims to rescue a lake of “butter-flavored topping” next.

This collaboration saves Preferred Popcorn’s farmers, Plucker says.

“A lot of them are second- or third-generation farmers,” she says. “It would be excruciating to say we are not going to be able to contract acres with you next year because we have an abundance of popcorn.”

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