Illinois Farmers Diversify and Succeed With Popcorn
Popcorn carries special memories for Andrew Bowman. He remembers sitting on his father’s lap and sharing a bowl after Lynn Bowman came in from a long day working on the farm near Oneida. Twenty-five years later, Andrew, a fifth-generation farmer, carries on that same tradition with his own son, Ryker.
But the snack now creates more than memories for the Bowman family. It creates profits, too, through their specialty popcorn brand, Pilot Knob Comforts.
“For the last four generations, we’ve grown a small amount of popcorn on our farm,” Bowman says. “But until recently, it was more of a hobby. We planted maybe a tenth of an acre, enjoying it ourselves and giving it away to others.”
But that changed as Andrew and Karlie Bowman considered expanding their farming operation, which includes 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans. “We decided our best avenue for growth was to increase the value of our production through diversification. Since we’d had some experience and success with popcorn, we jumped in.”
In the three years since the Bowmans made that decision, they have gone from less than an acre in popcorn production to 6 acres to 30. From those 30 acres, they produce nearly 60,000, 2-pound packages of Pilot Knob Comforts popcorn in two varieties – Ruby Red and Shaman Blue. The colors distinguish them. So do the tastes.
“They’re similar to heirloom varieties of other plants, like apples and tomatoes,” Bowman says. “Shaman Blue is buttery and nutty. Ruby Red is hearty and salty. Both are hull-less, which means the seed is very thin, so they’re easy to eat. We’ve been feeding it to our son since he was 6 months old.”
Seeds of Success
Popcorn, the official state snack, represents a very small niche in the Illinois corn market. Of the 12 million acres of corn grown in the state, only about 28,000 acres produce popcorn. Sweet corn grows on another 18,000 acres. Food-grade corn, used in tortillas, chips and cereals, makes up another small market. All the rest of the acres, more than 99 percent, produce field corn, primarily used to feed livestock, make ethanol and produce biobased fuel products.
But the small number of popcorn acres also represents a big opportunity, says Bowman, who grows field corn and food-grade corn in addition to popcorn.
“You can be high volume and lower profit margin by growing a commodity that lots of others do, or you can choose to diversify and grow a different commodity at a lower volume with a higher profit margin,” he says. “I look at our farm as a diversified portfolio, with crops that rotate well, but have a different value added and different characteristics that steer our farm’s management.”
While that value-added dimension brings opportunity, it also creates challenges. “If I grow field corn, I can get paid for it within a week, but my popcorn crop has zero value until I sell it,” Bowman says. “I have to make my own market.”
That means finding grocery and specialty stores that will stock it and customers who will buy it. “In addition to growing it and bagging it, we have to create a demand and a recognizable brand,” says Bowman.
Connections have helped another Illinois popcorn grower, David King, make his own market, too. The Morton farmer, who has had a corn and soybean farm for 40 years, grows white, yellow, red and light purple popcorn on five of his acres. He sells his brand, King Country Popcorn, through six to eight local grocery stores and directly to longtime customers. The local Youth Baseball Association can go through up to 800 pounds of his yellow popcorn each year.
“It’s a fun crop that people enjoy. I’m lucky to have a lot of loyal customers. For me, it’s more of a hobby, but a very time-consuming one,” King says, laughing.
Things are different for Steve Turner, a farmer from Chandlerville. He reserves nearly 10 percent of his 2,800 acres in Mason County for popcorn. Plus, he has a ready market, selling it under contract to Farm Fresh Popcorn in Ridgway.
“As a county, we’re one of the top popcorn producers in terms of acreage. I grow a couple of million pounds a year on my farm alone,” Turner says. “We get good yields because it’s a crop that likes our irrigated sand.”
In addition to his nearly 300 acres of popcorn, Turner and his sons, Jacob and Brandon, grow corn, soybeans and wheat. For them, the diversification that popcorn provides has paid dividends. “Popcorn gives us strong return on irrigated acres,” Turner says. “It’s a top producer in terms of net income.”
Bowman hopes the same will be true for his farm in the future. “My goal is to have built the brand so that we can continue to diversify,” he says. “I’d like to get to the point where 20 to 50 percent of our corn acre production will be in popcorn. Developing a market has its risks, but it also can have some great rewards.”