By Gary Truitt
A few weeks ago on National Popcorn Day, I made an impromptu video and posted it on social media. In this video, shot in my kitchen, I discussed the importance of popcorn to Indiana agriculture, the heritage of the crop in our state, and some different ways to enjoy the snack. All this, while popping some Indiana popcorn in my electric, hot oil, popcorn maker. I did not expect much to come of it, but I was wrong. To date, the video has been watched by thousands of people. What I did not realize at the time is that the Indiana Senate was debating a bill to make popcorn the official snack of Indiana.
Senate Bill 97 was sponsored by State Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, with a host of co-sponsors. The bill sailed through the Ag Committee; and, after only a few minutes of debate, the Senate passed the measure by a vote of 45 to 4. The Senate debate contained more poor puns than rational arguments. “We need something to make Indiana known besides just basketball,” Grooms said. Other lawmakers quipped about being “buttered up” or “kernel of truth.” Mainstream media coverage was not much better. The Northwest Indiana Times suggested that Gummy Bears should be selected since they are manufactured in Lake County. If the measure becomes law, Indiana would be the sixth state with an official snack.
Missing in all the frivolity is the fact that popcorn production is a major part of Hoosier agriculture and a significant economic driver in our state’s economy. According to USDA figures, popcorn production in Indiana is a $74 million industry. Popcorn production in the state was up in 2020 and saw prices rise and is one of the few sectors of agriculture that did well during the pandemic. At 94,000 acres, Indiana‘s production was the highest since 2016. Revenue from popcorn production was up over 38% last year. Yet, the designation of popcorn as the state snack has implications far from just the recognition of its economic value.
In addition to the large popcorn operations that produce for major well-known brands, there are a growing number of smaller operations who are selling directly to the public. Indiana Grown.com lists over a dozen individual farmers that sell to the public. These operations offer a wide range of different popcorn varieties that most people have never tried. With the increasing interest in local foods and the state’s support of local food production, this official state designation will help draw attention to the unique taste and variety of Indiana popcorn.
During a state-sponsored, trade mission to China several years ago, an Indiana popcorn farmer was able to meet with the operator of the largest movie theater chain in China who was so impressed with Indiana popcorn he started buying it for the theaters. Creating an Identity for Indiana as the popcorn capital of the world would have benefits for both large and small producers which is a point that seems to have been lost on Indiana lawmakers.
As Senate Bill 97 moves to the House, it may face some obstacles. Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, already has said, “Not sure 2021 is the year to take this up.” One of the big hurdles the bill faces is getting people to take it seriously. “It’s amazing how people look at things like the state tree, the state flower, the state fruit, the state pie,” said Grooms. “It creates a lot of nice conversation and is a good way to market Indiana.” His legislation would do the same for popcorn. “We can now say we have an official popcorn. It’s grown-in-Indiana popcorn,” said Groom. “Not just any popcorn—it has to be grown in Indiana.”
Owner of Poppin’ Flavors Gourmet Popcorn in Jeffersonville, Alphonzo Brown takes popcorn very seriously. “Popcorn is a comfort food. It’s a welcoming food that makes people happy. It also makes people want to spend time with loved ones,” said Brown. “I think it being the state snack for Indiana would be a great thing.”
According to statehouse reporter Kyla Howard, when Grooms presented the bill, the committee members made jokes and puns and raved about the idea of having Indiana-grown popcorn in meetings. “They went from tired workers on a Monday morning to laughing and bouncing in their chairs like corn in a kettle,” wrote Howard. Let’s hope members of the House take this issue a bit more seriously and pass a bill which has no fiscal impact and would help grow an important agricultural industry.