The popularity of popcorn

There’s nothing bite-size about the popcorn business in Illinois.

As one of the top corn producing states, it’s no surprise that Illinois is also a top popcorn producer as well. In fact, the largest popcorn producing county in the state is Mason County, which has 18,522 of the state’s entire 28,000 acres dedicated to the snack, according to the last U.S. Agriculture Census.

Mason County growers tend to raise popcorn and sell it to a variety of wholesalers representing nationwide brands as bagged popcorn seeds, microwave popcorn or prepared popcorn, or they self-market it to local grocers or at farmers markets.

But let’s consider specialty popcorn producer Black Jewell in Lawrence County which grows an average of 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre.

Black Jewell

Black Jewell Popcorn, which is a long-time Illinois brand of popcorn is now owned by an Indiana company.

Last year, the producer had a “very good” harvest, says Black Jewell Operations Manager Ken Delap. In fact, he says they hit their record year last year.

“We, like many producers, actually planted fewer acres of popcorn this year versus last to rebalance inventory levels. Our yields vary by variety but are typically in the 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre range,” he explains.

The “Original Black Jewell” seed was first grown and sold in 1963 as a unique and proprietary heirloom strain of black kernel popcorn. While its kernels pop white and virtually hull free, the company claims its flavor is distinctive from yellow or white popcorn. The company has passed hands twice, most recently in April 2013 when current owner Johnson Ventures, a family-owned business, bought it. Today, it employs 17 people, including three fulltime and seven part-time in Illinois.

Rebranding and new marketing goals have refreshed the business with new packaging and more varieties that include crimson popcorn, microwave options and non-genetically modified organism verification. Its wholesale target is now nationwide and can be found in many large chains such as Publix, Ingles, Meijer, Schnucks, Wegmans, The Fresh Market, Albertsons, Hy-Vee and Rural King.

The new ownership has also meant a shift in business operations. The plant remains in St. Francisville, but the corporate office is in Columbus, Ind. Consumer sales for home consumption is in the fall and remain high throughout the winter months before tapering off during the spring and summer, according to the Popcorn Institute. It also states that 90 percent of popcorn sales are as unpopped popcorn for home use as opposed for movie theaters, stadiums and schools.

What are differences in processing popcorn?

There are four kinds of corn – dent or field corn, flint or Indian corn, sweet corn and then there’s popcorn, which is a special kind of flint corn that’s edible.

While field planting and production methods are similar with field corn, there’s extra care with the processing. The seeds are smaller, so Johnson said planting may require different plates, but generally the process is the same. The differences come in what they do with the popcorn after harvest and to prep for packaging.

Andrew Bowman of Pilot Knob Comforts, is owner and grower of a new and independent brand of Knox County popcorn called Pilot Knob Comfort Popcorn. It’s grown basically the same way as commodity corn, but the yield is much less, at about 100 bushels an acre instead of 260 bushels for row corn.

First, there’s the pre-cleaning process to filter out debris. Then the popcorn is further cleaned, and moisture tested one batch at a time. The moisture content ranges from 13 percent to 14.5 percent.

Another quality factor that’s measured for popcorn is the minimum expansion ratio and is used to determine “popability” – 35 to 38 to one.

Of course, marketing direct to consumers demands a need to brag on the snack’s nutritional values. Black Jewell’s website is quick to mention antioxidants not present in yellow and white popcorns.

But other health attributes are literally a mouthful: whole grain, gluten free, cholesterol free and disease-fighting phytochemicals.

Here’s what the Popcorn Board, a national grower marketing agency, says about it:

One serving can provide about 70 percent of an individual’s recommended daily intake of whole grain. It contains only 100 to 150 calories in a serving of five popped cups. It also contains a number of essential vitamins including: folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins B6, A, E and K. A serving of popcorn contains about 8 percent of the daily value of iron, with lesser amounts of calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.

Everyone loves popcorn

America has never eaten as much popcorn as it did in 2016 when popcorn sales totaled a record 1,145,262,029 pounds, U.S. Department of Agriculture records state.

Other popcorn-producing states are in neighboring Indiana as well as Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio, notes the Popcorn Board on its website.

The United States feeds popcorn to the world, providing 85 percent of global sales.

One of Illinois’ best-known popcorn brands is Garrett’s Popcorn, with corporate offices in Chicago and Hong Kong. Garrett’s is famous for its cheddar cheese and caramel popcorn and ships it around the world.

Learn more about popcorn at

Karen Binder lives in Carbondale and buys popcorn wherever she can find it.