Popcorn producers are feeling the heat of the U.S.-China trade war


Here’s a question for you: What does the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China have to do with a night at the movies? The answer? Your trusty cinematic companion, popcorn.

In the same way American soybean and hog farmers are feeling the strain of international trade tensions with China, so are American popcorn producers, who exported 313 million pounds of popcorn in 2017 — 30% of the year’s crop, according to the Popcorn Board, a nonprofit founded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is comprised of American popcorn growers and distributors.

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Farmers are filled with uncertainty by the trade war. There’s been no resolution to trade tensions between the United States and China, though the two countries have agreed to set up enforcement offices to police any agreement they come to. In addition, the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement has not been ratified. The lack of a trade agreement leaves farmers caught between retaliatory tariffs and a hard place.

For the popcorn industry, that’s meant a drop in sales. Industrywide, exports of popcorn were down nearly 25% during the third quarter of 2018, according to Norm Krug, CEO of Preferred Popcorn and a member of the Popcorn Board.

Popcorn is a different variety of corn than the sweet corn that’s eaten on the cob or made into animal feed. But it’s all the same where tariffs are concerned. All forms of corn were part of the tariffs imposed by China on $110 billion worth of American products in 2018.

International markets

Krug remembers the first sale his company made in 1998.

Preferred Popcorn, a small entity then, had trouble selling popcorn not only in its home base of Nebraska, but throughout the United States. Much of the domestic popcorn industry is dominated by giants like packaged-foods producer Conagra, which forced smaller companies, like Preferred Popcorn in the late ’90s, to get creative with their business plans. It was in Jakarta, Indonesia, Krug explained, where his company found a level playing field and secured its first shipment of popcorn.


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