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Business picking up for Ramsey Popcorn

Indiana popcorn growers finished last year with a 300-pound yield increase over 2002, and the average price per pound rose to 11.6 cents, an increase of almost two cents per pound.
That’s good news for popcorn producers, like Ramsey Popcorn Co. Inc., located in northwestern Harrison County.
‘Even our business is starting to pick back up,’ said Wilfred E. Sieg Jr., president of Ramsey Popcorn Co. Inc.
The family-owned business, celebrating its 60th year in 2004, is now in its third generation. It started with Edward and Agnes Sieg driving from store to store to sell raw popcorn and other items from their pickup.
Wilfred Sieg Sr., better known as ‘Cousin Willie,’ and his three brothers ‘ Donald, Eugene and Mark ‘ inherited the business in the 1960s.
Cousin Willie, whose picture is on most of the products that Ramsey Popcorn sells, is now president emeritus.
Sieg Jr. said Ramsey Popcorn has grown into the No. 4 spot in the country ‘ ‘if not in the world’ ‘ in the number of pounds it handles each year.
About 40 employees, most from Harrison and Crawford counties, work at the plant along Clover Valley Road. Additional jobs are created throughout the community, as the packaging process is contracted out.
‘The packers already had the equipment,’ said Sieg Jr., 49.
Ramsey Popcorn contracts with farmers who plant about 10,000 to 12,000 acres of popcorn a year. (In Indiana, there were 88,000 acres of popcorn planted in 2003, 12,000 more than the previous year. Purdue University says there are more than 200 growers and about 12 processors in the state.)
A drought in 2002 made that year ‘real tough’ on popcorn growers, Sieg said, resulting in about 50 percent production.
‘Fortunately for us, we do contract out farther (south) than Southern Indiana,’ he said.
Last year, a record crop emerged from better growing conditions.
Planting has begun for the 2004 crop. Sieg said it’s ‘starting out OK. You plan for an average year, then you react.’
The United States produces 90 to 95 percent of the popcorn market in the world, but other countries, such as Argentina, are getting more into the market.
‘It’s forced some of the big players to go there and grow popcorn,’ Sieg said, for its cheaper labor.
The growing season there is about the same length as here but it’s the opposite time of year. That allows large companies the opportunity to grow popcorn year-round.
Ramsey Popcorn’s marketing strategy is to focus on close to home.
‘We basically operate within a 250-mile radius,’ which takes in Ohio to the east, Kentucky and Tennessee to the south, a little of Michigan to the north, and Illinois to the west, barely crossing into Missouri.
‘We have the No. 1 item in St. Louis right now,’ Sieg said, and that is Ramsey Popcorn’s Kettle Corn.
There are several other varieties of microwave popcorn: 93% Fat Free Natural, 93% Fat Free Butter, Natural, White Cheddar Cheese, Butter, Light Butter, Movie Theater Butter, and its current best seller overall, Buttery Explosion.
Less than five percent of Ramsey Popcorn’s sales is non-microwaveable popcorn, for concession sales and ‘pre-popped product’ sold under other labels like Kroger and Frito-Lay.
While Ramsey Popcorn’s customers have remained ‘fairly steady,’ the company is facing higher production costs, everything from fuel to labor to insurance.
‘Customers don’t like for us to pass costs on,’ Sieg said. ‘No one wants to see prices go up.’
But because popcorn is a specialty crop, producers have to be competitive in what they pay farmers, who might opt to grow fuel corn or beans instead because those crops are commodities that can be traded every day.
‘What hurts (us) is the big guys have more cash to get through the tough times,’ Sieg said, ‘and you get bigger and bigger retailers, like Wal-Mart and Kroger’ that don’t necessarily buy from companies the size of Ramsey Popcorn.
‘There’ll probably be more smaller farmers fall out of processing,’ he said.
Ramsey Popcorn hasn’t felt any repercussions following a lawsuit by a production worker in Illinois who claims his lungs were burned by breathing oils used in preparing microwave popcorn.
‘It’s a worker safety issue,’ he said. ‘As an industry, we’re being very pro-active in trying to find out what happened.’
Sieg credits Ramsey Popcorn’s employees with their success.
‘They take a lot of pride in what they do,’ he said. ‘A lot of them have been here 15 year or more. It’s a good, local place to work.’
Ramsey Popcorn continues to try to find new avenues, including more marketing on the Internet and developing new products. One of those new items is a cinnamon toast microwave popcorn.
‘You have to look for new ways to do business,’ Sieg said. ‘The business is changing every year.’
For more information about Ramsey Popcorn, visit its Web site at www.ramseypopcorn.com.

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