The Kernel Business is Popping

10/20/2012 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

Reist Popcorn Co. Thrives, Adapts to Competitive Market

MOUNT JOY, Pa. — When it comes to fall food favorites, popcorn often ranks high on the list. Chances are, if you live in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., some of the popcorn you’ve been snacking on is part of the 11 million pounds processed in Mount Joy, Pa., in Lancaster County.

The easternmost popcorn processor in the U.S., Reist Popcorn Co. dates back to 1925 when farmer Alvin Reist founded the Reist Seed Co. in an old stone mill building on East Main Street at Little Chiques Creek. By 1937, Reist had purchased and relocated to an 1860s brick tobacco warehouse near the center of town, along Manheim Street, which still houses the company.

As the company grew and transitioned from Alvin Reist to his son, Henry, and now to Henry’s son, Dave, the focus of the business also shifted away from its original offering of seed potatoes and seeds for field corn and grass.

The Reists first started growing popcorn in the 1930s, and by the late 1980s, the specialized corn had become the main focus of their business. In 2001, the company changed its name to Reist Popcorn Co. The popcorn processor now wholesales its products to a variety of snack food companies and movie theater chains.

While business is steady year-round, the period from late September through October marks the busiest time of year at the Reist plant. This is harvest time, when shipments of newly picked and shelled popcorn are arriving at their Mount Joy plant daily.

The Reists select the hybrids they want grown and the company contracts with a network of popcorn farmers to grow their crop. Reists pay periodic visits to their 20-plus growers during the month before harvest and at the end of the calendar year, to line up the next season’s contracts.

Dave Reist points out that popcorn has a lot in common with field corn. In general, popcorn prices follow prices on the general corn market. This year’s drought conditions have had a definite impact on both price and supply, with some yields at only 60 to 90 percent of a normal crop. In addition, popcorn has to compete with field corn and soybeans for field acreage, so the company gets the added pressure of acreage going to biofuels and human food consumption.

The majority of Reist’s popcorn is grown on 2,500 acres in Ohio. About 400 acres of the company’s popcorn is grown in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and York Counties. Small quantities are also grown in Nebraska and Illinois. The local kernels arrive by truck, but the popcorn from out of state finds its way to Mount Joy via rail transportation. Dave Reist and his son-in-law, Mike Higgins, who joined the business in 2009, are particularly proud of their recently established “transloading station,” located along the Amtrak railroad line about a mile west of their main plant. In fact, the use of rail transportation is so economical in the face of higher diesel prices, they’re hoping other businesses and farmers might want to share in the use of this facility, where products can be transferred easily from railroad cars to trucks.

Processing the Kernels

Once the popcorn kernels arrive at the Reist processing facility and are dried, they go through a three-stage process to ready them for shipment to customers. The shelled popcorn first runs through an air screen separator, which pulls out fine material and divides the kernels by size. An elevator then lifts the separated kernels to the building’s third floor, where they flow via gravity down into a density gravity separator. The separator further winnows the popcorn using pressurized air that is forced upward through a vibrating screen carrying the kernels. This process skims off lighter, imperfect kernels and also removes any remaining cob residue.

The final step in processing the popcorn is an optical scanning machine. This state-of-the-art device can process about 12,000 pounds of popcorn per hour and assures that the kernels passing through this final screening are a very pure product.

“(It) is all about color. A discolored kernel is usually defective in some way,” Dave Reist said about the machine.

Reist said his company processes two types of popcorn — butterfly and mushroom. Butterfly popcorn, which can be yellow or white in color, is “movie theater” popcorn. It pops with “a lot of wings” to create a fluffier popcorn that is perfect for catching salt and buttery topping. Mushroom popcorn, which always has yellow kernels, pops in more of a ball; it is better for coated popcorn products such as caramel corn or kettle corn because its more compact shape means less breakage during the coating process.

The company’s customers include local snack food manufacturers, Utz and Herr’s, and various distributors of movie theater popcorn. In the competitive field of popcorn suppliers, where the numerous “big players out there keep you on your toes” according to Reist, being the only popcorn processor in Pennsylvania gives the company a leg up with those distributors who believe in the logic of the state’s “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaign.

Prior to shipment, Reist’s fully processed kernels are stored in either 50-pound bags or 2,100-pound “super sack” totes. This inventory is stored in a warehouse that was purchased in 1968 by Dave’s father, Henry. It is located adjacent to the main processing plant and can hold up to 5,000 of the 50-pound bags before they are shipped out, mostly to southeast Pennsylvania distributors, but also as far away as New York City and South Carolina.

In an era where “going green” has become politically correct, Reist Popcorn Co. has been ahead of the curve. There is basically zero waste when it comes to the company’s popcorn processing. Rejected kernels are used for bird food.

“Good ecology makes fiscal sense,” said Dave Reist. He and his son-in-law, Mike Higgins, are also helping to conserve fuel — and their bottom line — by using rail transportation to bring the popcorn to them for processing.

For further information about the rail loading station or the company, go to or call 717-653-8078.

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