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The Clay County Advocate - Press-Flora, IL
  • Popcorn from the Midwest becoming a global treat

  • While the smell of fresh-popped corn is familiar to U.S. theaters, ballparks and offices, popcorn consumption is increasing around the world, according to the Chicago-based Popcorn Board, a trade group.

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  • While the smell of fresh-popped corn is familiar to U.S. theaters, ballparks and offices, popcorn consumption is increasing around the world, according to the Chicago-based Popcorn Board, a trade group.
    But before it winds up in bags or boxes at the store, popcorn starts in the field. As manager of the Weaver Popcorn Co. operation in Forest City, a small town in central Illinois, Dan Sleaford oversees the planting and development of popcorn for what’s considered the largest popcorn company in the world.
    “Maybe you haven’t heard of us, but you’ve probably had our popcorn,” said Sleaford, who’s been with the company for 23 years.
    Popcorn origins
    Today, the Pop Weaver microwave brand is sold at Wal-Mart outlets and is called Mighty Pop at Sam’s Club stores. But Weaver produces popcorn under lots of other names, including the Trail’s End brand, a fundraising tool for the Boy Scouts, Sleaford said.
    Based in Noblesville, Ind., 20 miles outside Indianapolis, the firm was started by Ira Weaver in 1928.
    According to Grocer.com, Weaver now produces about 30 percent of the world’s popcorn, drawing from fields across the U.S. and in Argentina.
    No area is more productive when it comes to popcorn than the region Weaver uses in central Illinois.
    “Mason County is the largest popcorn-producing county in the United States,” said Sleaford of the county, just south of Peoria, that’s dubbed itself “the Imperial Valley of the Midwest.”
    Fed by an aquifer that allows farmers to use underground irrigation to grow a variety of specialty crops such as melons, peas and tomatoes, Mason County stands apart in a state blanketed by fields of corn and soybeans.
    “Irrigation down here is an insurance policy against a bad year,” said Sleaford, referring to the possibility of drought or excessive heat.
    Types of corn
    The corn raised in Mason County and surrounding counties varies from the field corn grown for cattle feed and ethanol elsewhere, he said.
    “We’ve developed our own hybrids. Some are better for microwave popcorn. Some are better for caramel popcorn,” said Sleaford.
    Theaters, for example, want a popcorn variety that pops the biggest, he said.
    Along with a ready supply of water, the other regional benefit is the area’s agricultural history, said Sleaford.
    “We contract with a lot of growers here. We probably have between 70 and 80 producers planting on several thousand acres. The farmers here are quality-conscious and do a great job,” said Sleaford, who works out of Weaver’s Forest City plant where popcorn is bagged and stored.
    Snack going worldwide
    While the market has leveled off in the U.S., this country still devours more popcorn than any other in the world, according to the Popcorn Board. But demand is increasing overseas, a fact that Sleaford is well aware of.
    Page 2 of 2 - “Other countries don’t consume as much as us, but in places like China, with a huge population, business is growing,” he said. Weaver recently signed a contract to supply all the popcorn for a large Chinese theater chain.
    Other major popcorn export markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are Mexico, South Korea and Japan.
    There are plenty of reasons that popcorn remains a popular treat, said Sleaford.
    “It’s healthy, a snack food and a cheap product to buy. You can go to Wal-Mart and buy a 24-pack of microwave popcorn for $5,” he said.
    Eight corny facts
    1. Americans consume some 16 billion quarts of this good-for-you treat. That’s 51 quarts per man, woman and child.
    2. Popcorn is a type of maize (or corn), a member of the grass family, and is scientifically known as Zea mays everta.
    3. Popcorn is a whole grain. It is made up of three components: the germ, endosperm and pericarp, also know as the hull.
    4. Popcorn differs from other types of maize/corn in that it has a thicker pericarp, or hull. The hull allows pressure from the heated water to build and eventually bursts open. The inside starch becomes gelatinous while being heated; when the hull bursts, the gelatinized starch spills out and cools, giving it its familiar popcorn shape.
    5. Most U.S. popcorn is grown in the Midwest, primarily in Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri.
    6. Many people believe the acres of corn they see in the Midwest during growing season could be picked and eaten for dinner, or dried and popped. In fact, those acres are typically field corn, which is used
    largely for livestock feed, and differs from both sweet corn and
    popcorn.
    7. The peak period for popcorn sales for home consumption is in the fall.
    8. Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it’s popped: snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake is used in movie theaters and
    ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn’t crumble.
     
     

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