News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 6, 2013

No pop-secret

157th edition of the State Fair shines light on Indiana’s global crop by showcasing ‘The Year of Popcorn’

INDIANAPOLIS — Who can turn down an offer of freshly popped popcorn drizzled with butter and sprinkled with a dash of salt?

The good news is that you don’t have to when you visit the 157th Indiana State Fair, under way now at the fairgrounds in Indianapolis and continuing through Aug. 18.

The 2013 theme is “Year of Popcorn” and is presented by Weaver Popcorn Co. of Van Buren. From seeing the world’s largest popcorn ball and popcorn made in many flavors to winding their way through a popcorn maze, visitors will get their fill of their favorite snack.

Weaver Popcorn was founded in 1928 in Indiana by the Rev. Ira Weaver. According to the state fair program, Weaver shucked and bagged his own popcorn and delivered it to his customers in a horse-drawn carriage. Today, the fourth-generation-owned company’s popcorn is still grown in the Hoosier state and surrounding Midwest states.

Weaver Popcorn remains a family-owned business while providing 30 percent of the world’s popcorn and distributing to more than 90 countries around the world.

Indiana is ranked second — Nebraska is first — in popcorn production in the United States, thanks to farmers like brothers Ed and Mark Shew. They no-till 2,650 acres of land in Vigo, Parke and Vermillion counties, including 1,150 acres of soybeans and 650 acres of corn, with the balance of 900 acres planted in popcorn provided by Weaver. The land they plant in popcorn is leased to them by Garrett Pendergast, whose late father, Lyman, bought the farm in 1945 in northern Vigo County. The Shews began contracting to plant popcorn on Pendergast’s farm for Weaver in 1986.

“Our grandpa and then our dad, Stan, and his brother, Ray, had grown popcorn from 1950 to ’86 for Blevins, and then Ellis Popcorn in West Terre Haute,” Ed said. “Weaver started to expand [its] popcorn acreage and number of growers in the mid-1980s, so we contacted their fieldman and discussed the options. We’ve been with them ever since.”

Weaver has also used the Pendergast ground several times for test plots over the years, Garrett said. “They are fanatics about quality and excellent to work with. They send people to inspect the fields several times a year for rates of growth. Weaver dictates many aspects of the production process, like which chemicals or insecticides we can use, and they work with us on any problem or concern.”

Weaver provides the seed, but Mark said specialty crops like popcorn have to be grown under special conditions, and it takes more effort to do it. “We have to clean augers and combines in between beans and corn, so we can’t just switch from one to the other because of quality issues.”

While most corn grown in fields might look like it could be used for popcorn or sweet corn, there are actually several types of corn that can be grown by farmers.

 Most corn grown is field corn, which is used for livestock feed.

Sweet corn is what consumers can eat fresh from their gardens, a farm market or purchase from a grocery.

Corn grown and used for popping can actually go directly from field to stove or microwave, but when you purchase it from a store, is has been further cleaned for consumption, packaging and shipping.

“There are three categories of popcorn and there can be different varieties in a category,” Mark said. “The categories are concession, which is the big fluffy popcorn found in movie theaters,; microwave; and caramel corn, which pops up in a ball shape, which has less surface area, so it does not take as much caramel or syrup to cover it.”

Mark also said Weaver was a supplier to familiar popcorn names such as Jiffy Pop, Cracker Jack and Act II until about 10 years ago, when Weaver also began marketing for itself under the name Pop Weaver. The company has also been making Trail’s End popcorn products for more than 30 years, partnering with the Boy Scouts of America to help scouts raise more than $2 billion to fund their yearly programs and activities. Fairgoers can purchase the Trail’s End Popcorn during the state fair at the Boy Scouts Legacy Bridge and Shelter site on the east side of the fairgrounds.

Growing popcorn has its perks, Ed said. “I take ears of popcorn to the kindergarten classes at Central Elementary School in Clinton every year because the kids like shelling the ears and popping it up for snacks during the school year.” Garrett also gives 250 to 300 pounds of popcorn to Ryves Hall in Terre Haute to be used as snacks for the after-school program.

Perhaps Ed’s favorite popcorn perk happened when he gave a 50-pound bag of popcorn to his late first wife, Carol, while she was in college. “I thought she would like it for snacks, and her roommates said, ‘This is great, you better keep this guy!’”

The Shew brothers and Pendergast are grateful to be part of the 90-plus popcorn growers in Indiana. “We’re glad Weaver is the state fair sponsor.” Mark said. “I think it’s great that two huge food companies — Weaver and Red Gold — are right here in Indiana. “

Susan Hayhurst is a freelance writer from Vigo County, where she and her husband operate a farm. She has served on the Indiana State Fair Commission since 2005. Hayhurst is writing stories from the 2013 Indiana State Fair for the Tribune-Star.

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