SALEM, Ohio — For the past two years, Geauga County farmer Kevin O’Reilly has turned an often overlooked crop into a healthy profit center. That is about to change.
“It’s unfortunate, because it was good for us,” O’Reilly said of his two seasons growing popcorn under contract with ConAgra Foods. “It was something that was a little different and we always look for those kind of opportunities.”
After more than 20 years in Ohio, ConAgra Foods will move the second of its two popcorn manufacturing facilities out of the state by June.
“We have multiple plants with similar capabilities,” said Monique Farmer, a spokesperson for the Omaha, Nebraska-based company. “This transition will allow the company to operate more efficiently and effectively.”
ConAgra’s Marion, Ohio, plant closed in October 2014. Its Morral, Ohio, facility is set to close in June.
Who gets hit
According to the latest statistics from the Popcorn Board, the industry’s national commodity checkoff program, 18,484 acres of popcorn were planted in Ohio in 2013. The state is ranked third in the nation in popcorn production behind Nebraska and Indiana.
Popcorn manufacturing has been part of Marion, Ohio, history since the 1940s, when the Wyandot Popcorn company moved its operations to the city.
ConAgra took over the Wyandot’s raw popcorn processing operation in 1989 and the facility was leased and renovated in 1992, Farmer said.
ConAgra’s facility in the nearby Marion County village of Morral opened in 1991.
Both plants made Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn.
Farmer said a total of 160 production workers at the two plants are being impacted by the closures, but she declined to say how many contracts the company has with Ohio growers, or how many acres of production would be affected by the move.
O’Reilly, owner of Little Ireland Farms in Geauga County, said popcorn can bring a higher profit margin than bulk commodities such as field corn. In the wake of the ConAgra decision, he will be planting food-grade soybeans this year on the 100 acres he had devoted to popcorn.
Most of Ohio popcorn growers are located in the western half of the state, O’Reilly said, adding that smaller, regional popcorn companies could ensure the crop will not entirely disappear from the landscape.
But for an operation such as his, popcorn simply became too cost prohibitive without the ConAgra contract.
“But we would certainly try it again, given the right opportunity,” O’Reilly said.
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