By Tom Collins
Growing popcorn is similar to growing sweet corn or grain corn, but making a living at it couldn’t be more different, say the few Ontario popcorn producers.
Scott Wright of Sunnydale Farms at Picton started growing popcorn four years ago thanks to his daughter, Marlie. Wright was leafing through a seed catalogue one day when his then-three-year-old daughter saw the popcorn variety and suggested he buy some of those seeds.
That first year, he grew half an acre.
“We bought a bag of (seed) and threw it in and it did a hell of a lot better than we thought it would,” he said. “We ended up with a fair pile of it and we were more or less giving it away for Christmas. Everyone was like ‘this is really good,’ so we thought we would try it a bit and we’ve been expanding a bit every year.”
Now they grow four different varieties on five acres.
Air-popped popcorn is catching on as a healthier alternative snack food, low in calories and high in fibre. It’s the additional toppings that make it unhealthy, say health experts. According to the USDA, three cups of popped popcorn equals one serving of grains.
There were 1.15 billion pounds of popcorn sold in the U.S. in 2016.
Popcorn producers closely guard their secrets that it took them years to learn as competition is tough even though there are few growers. While there’s no official tally, you’d be hard-pressed to find five Ontario farmers growing and selling popcorn.
Wright explained the popcorn’s moisture levels have to be less than grain corn. His online blog a couple of years ago said the ideal popping moisture content was about 12 to 14 per cent.
He declined to update that with specific numbers. “I don’t like telling people what that is because we took a lot of trial and error to figure out where it should be, and if anyone wants to do it, he can figure it out himself,” he said.
Wright did explain popcorn can’t be dried with high heat like a regular corn dryer as the corn will pop. And if the popcorn is dried too much, then it won’t pop later for the customer.
“You’ve got to find that happy medium,” he said. “We dry small batches at a time. It’s a pain in the ass, no two ways about that.”
Wright cash crops 200 acres and has 25 head of beef. He works full-time in a local cement plant while his wife, Jocelyn Buggie, is a school teacher. He says if he could make a full-time living selling popcorn, he would, but he knows it is hard to market.
A farmer yielding 170 bushels per acre of grain corn and selling it for $4.50 a bushel earns $765 an acre before expenses. Wright’s blue variety popcorn yields 1,500 lb. to 1,800 lb. on three quarters of an acre and he sells it retail in bulk for $1 a pound in a few local stores around Prince Edward County and at the farmgate. One acre would yield about 2,000 lb. and about $2,000 before expenses.
“The money is a hell of a lot better, but it’s more work,” said Wright, adding they advertise through word of mouth, Facebook and Instagram. The popcorn is sold on the farm, in local stores and to three breweries to pop in their tasting room. “It’s a good tidy income.”
Wright grows four varieties — blue, red, white and mushroom — and sells the seeds in jars. The varieties have the distinctive colour until they pop, and all have different flavours and levels of sweetness. The red is a light crispy variety with a nutty flavour, while the white is more dense and has a cornbread taste.
Wright also makes kettle corn — popcorn that is mixed with a refined sugar, salt and oil and cooked in a large kettle pot — in three flavours: Maple, spicy and sweet and salty. He sells them in bags.
Russell Jones, of Jones Popcorn at Leamington, grew a million pounds of popcorn a year on 300 acres in the 1980s and was selling in 40 A&P grocery stores, but then began to get squeezed in the 1990s. He was forced to match the cheaper price of American popcorn and had to spend $50,000 to $100,000 on a popcorn grading machine. The grocery stores gave him less shelf space and new regulations banned insecticides in Canada that American popcorn growers were still allowed to use.
“In today’s world, we need to have the number one product or people will not buy it,” said Jones.
Jones eventually went down to growing 3,000 pounds a year. He got out of growing popcorn two years ago. In his final year of sales, he spent $15,000 on gas for his truck and earned $25,000 in gross sales.
Jones is still selling what he has left on the shelf. Unpopped popcorn can last indefinitely if stored properly.
He said the popcorn market is dominated by a few players, making it hard for a new grower to make a dent in the marketplace as those big name companies put pressure on stores to only sell their products. There are over 100 varieties of popcorn on the market at any one time, said Jones, who grew popcorn for over 45 years.
Blair Townsend of Uncle Bob’s Ontario Popping Corn Co. at Walsingham in Norfolk County, told Farmers Forum that while anyone can grow popcorn, the biggest hurdle is marketing.
“Popcorn sales (across the continent) have gone nowhere but up,” he said. “The problem is you just can’t access it. The open market on popcorn is very limited. Popcorn business is very much like tobacco. It’s run by a few very large multi-national conglomerates, and they really tie everybody’s hands down.”
Townsend, who has been growing popcorn for 32 years, survives by selling highly-specialized coloured popcorn, organic popcorn and popcorn on the cob online and in rural grocery stores. You put the cob in a bag and pop it in the microwave.
Townsend will grow anywhere from 100 to 250 acres of popcorn, depending on sales. He originally started growing 5-10 acres as a hobby while he was a tobacco farmer and the business has grown from there.
He estimated it would cost someone $5 million to get into growing popcorn on a large scale as it would take at least a year to set everything up, have facilities to store it in, equipment to clean the popcorn and have someone out on the road to sell the popcorn.
“There’s been guys asked me (about starting into popcorn), and I’ve never said don’t grow it. I said just be careful.”