July 10-13, 2017
Sweet corn season started for us right around the first of July this year. The plan is to have another patch ripen every ten days or two weeks for the next couple of months. Each patch is a little different for various reasons, but will be beautiful in its own right.
First, there are thousands of varieties to choose from that go way beyond Silver Queen and Peaches ‘n Cream. Silver Queen was the gold standard for a generation as corn breeders selected the best when evolving away from corn raised to feed livestock. Back then, “cow corn” could be harvested in the “roasting ear” stage when it was still milky and the starch content still low. Silver Queen had higher sugar content before it converted the sugar to starch, which is more stable for long-term storage. Now, all sweet corns are bred to be sugary and bred for the transition to starch to be delayed. Essentially these days, all sweet corn you will see in any marketplace will be known as “super-sweet” varieties that allow growers to get the product to consumers in the sugary state. For the real Silver Queen variety, they say you should have the water hot before you pick it as it loses sweetness by the minute. In addition to this sweetness attribute, varieties differ in days to maturity, color pattern, husk coverage, cold or heat tolerance, pest resistance, and many others. Suffice it to say, a single variety like Ambrosia may not be the best for all seasons.
We will plant several varieties on the same day with differing maturity dates. They are managed as one crop, yet the harvest is spread out over several weeks. The interval between pickings is planned out by us, but in reality is totally dependent on the weather during the growing season. Weed control is a major factor in raising a good patch of corn. As organic farmers, we plant with the contours of the land and use cultivation equipment to eliminate weeds both between the rows and between the plants in the row. Growers that are not certified organic may use some herbicides for grassy weeds, others for broadleaf weeds at the time they plant. These extremely toxic chemicals have numerous warnings on the label concerning human exposure for the applicator and effects on the environment as well as adverse effects on surface and ground water. Now there are Genetically Engineered (GE) varieties that allow farmers to also spray herbicides directly on the corn crop and the weeds, magically burning back the weeds, while not affecting the corn. Hmmm. Some weed species are adapting and showing resistance to this technology to the point that none of the herbicides are effective on them anymore.
Insect pest management is the most challenging aspect of sweet corn production. There are essentially no problems until the last few days as the ears form. Some insects feed on the silks as they emerge from the developing ear. Each individual silk is actually a tube that carries the pollen to the egg that forms a kernel if fertilization is complete. Hot dry weather can also dry out the silks, disrupting the fertilization pattern. This is often the case when those kernels at the very tip are not formed. We look for varieties with good husk coverage as it impedes the ability for insects to burrow into the ear to access the juicy sweet kernels. The corn earworm is the most notable of these. Our organic certifier allows us to use a naturally occurring insect virus, called Bacillus Thuringiensis that eliminates the larval stage of that insect before it penetrates the ear. The timing of the application of this material is so critical to the effectiveness of it; often control may not be achieved. Determining when the pests hit a threshold level indicating the need to use the material is tricky in itself. No organic farmer is allowed to use any product like this unless all other cultural controls are documented as ineffective. Natural enemies, good husk coverage, and vigorous growth are often enough. We rarely apply these materials, opting for a less-is-more mentality.
By the way, there are now GE varieties of sweet corn that have this same naturally occurring insect virus implanted into the chromosomes of the corn itself. In these, every cell in the plant carries this trait, so any pest of this type is killed when it eats any part of the plant. What this also means is it is IN the kernel you consume! Insects are already adapting to this technology and resistant species are adapting to persist in this altered environment. Also, the stalks are not breaking down after harvest because the insects that normally feed on such material are reduced or eliminated.
Birds, raccoons, and deer can also wipe out a corn patch. They, like the insects and humans, wait for the kernels to ripen before going in for a meal. Birds will tatter the ends eating the kernels out on the tip. We use inflatable balloons with an eye painted on them for scarecrows. Traditional scarecrows work in small gardens but we need something out in the middle of the patch. Raccoons will pull the ears from the stalk, take a bite, go on to the next one, and consume countless ears overnight. They may come from miles around depending on availability of other sources of food. We use a version of our electrified poultry netting to keep them out.
We used to not include the non-perfect ears in your CSA Farm Shares, but you told us again and again in your end-of-season surveys that you would rather have blemished organic corn over conventional corn or no corn. So, you may see ears of sweet corn in your share that show some poor kernel development due to dry weather, or at some point we may even cut the ends off for you before preparing shares. We think this is highly preferable to growing GE varieties stacked with numerous traits so consumers will see the perfect ear of sweet corn. Enjoy your delicious and flavorful Elmwood Stock Farm organic, non-gmo sweet corn, for true beauty is in the eye of the informed beholder! – Mac Stone
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