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Popcorn growers face 2014 challenges

By Staff | Feb 1, 2014

GREG HOFFMAN, right, vice president of production for Jolly Time Pop Corn, in Sioux City, confers with Dave Sitzmann, company field rep, with regard to Jolly Time growers’ pre-planting intentions.

SIOUX CITY – Popcorn growers in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are like their commercial corn producers are in the midst of finalizing their 2014 planting intentions.

These growers with crop acreage ranging from 50 to 2,000 acres, averaging 135 acres, said Greg Hoffman, of Jolly Time Pop Corn.

“Popcorn is and has been a crop offering a unique opportunity for a lot of normal rotation growers,” said Hoffman, who is works with contracted growers. “The crop requires a very similar amount of inputs and uses a lot of the same cultivation practices associated with raising field corn.

“The most unique challenge that we have is our producers are growing a food crop.”

That means watching all inputs during the season from seed treatments through final packaging, he said.

“These growers must not only be extremely good farmers,” Hoffman said, “but they have to be resourceful in their approach to be on top of the game when it comes to supplying American Pop Corn Co. with a quality food product.”

Hoffman, the current chair of the industry’s National Pop Corn Institute’s tech committee, said it’s incumbent on Jolly Time’s field department to develop relationships that take these measures into account.

“The last two years we’ve had to throw a lot of our old rules out the window,” Hoffman said, “in order to respond to unprecedented heat and drought.

“At this time we continue to be concerned about what sub-soil moisture will be this spring.

“Presently they’re definitely low.”

He said growers are resourceful and field staff knows the growers’ strengths and field soil types.

“As we look at soil moisture conditions,” Hoffman said, “we need to supply growers with hybrid seed that’ll respond well to these dryland conditions in Iowa, the irrigated conditions in Nebraska or the frost challenges in South Dakota.”

Drought conditions necessitated Jolly Time to consider an insurance policy for competitive inventory supplies. Earlier drought periods put upward to 75 percent of its production into irrigated areas in Nebraska, Hoffman said.

Nebraska is a “high end supplier” of the nation’s annual 1 billion pounds of popcorn sold in the United States.

Indiana, Ohio and Iowa are among others of the top popcorn production states.

“Every time unusual weather events occur this triggers a whole bunch of other things in the growing plant,” Hoffman added. “We feel that we were fortunate last year in that we got timely rains in our area and translated into yields that were extraordinarily good.”

It’s important for those unfamiliar with popcorn production, he said, that in order for Jolly Time and its growers to be competitive popcorn yields (calculated on per pound rather than per bushel production levels) must be at the 80-pound level to compete with income returns of a comparable 200-bushels-per-acre field corn yield.

And that’s the concern for current corn prices.

“This year for example, corn’s been dropping like a rock right now,” he said. “Popcorn is an alternative crop.

“For many of our growers’ rotations it has become a primary crop, because they’ve been able to count on us being several bucks ahead of normal corn prices.

“What we’re seeing now is $4.50 corn in Chicago and $4 or less at local elevators.

“We’ve had to change how we compensate our growers over the last three to four years because of the volatility of the markets and need to rely on the December futures’ price for field corn,” Hoffman said.

Instead of approaching growers with a list price and signing them up in January and February, Hoffman said the company uses a variable pricing option, based on a formula focused on hybrid and yield potential.

Yet another of the changes within the popcorn industry, Hoffman said, has been the decline in the number of hybrid popcorn companies.

This contributes to grower concerns on new hybrid development and advancement in disease and insect resistance traits .

Advanced research beginning in the late-1990s, driven by new global markets in South America and other global areas have, however, lessened this concern with advanced hybrids showing what Hoffman called, “amazing performance.”

At the same time, he said, growers have had to become additionally open-minded and willing to accept the new challenges of producing a food product.

One of those challenges is the new Food Safety Modification Act.

“This has not just raised the bar,” Hoffman said, “but escalated our efforts to comply accordingly and address the issues.”

As for genetically modified seed coming into popcorn production, Hoffman said, the industry realizes its vulnerability to consumer protection and a sensitivity of demand in not only the United States, but Europe, which has refused a major seed company’s GMO popcorn.

“We acknowledge the genetically altered world is growing,” Hoffman said. “At the same time, we don’t think popcorn absolutely needs to go there at this point.”

Among considerations in the industry’s decision, Hoffman said, is the fact of popcorn’s uniqueness as a result of what is known as dent sterility.

This plant characteristic, he said, insures pollen coming from another genetically altered plant, such as seed corn, fails to result in popcorn fertilization when landing on the silks.

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