10:47 a.m., July 8, 2009----Did you have corn on the cob recently? If so, you may have been munching on Delaware corn -- the very first of the season.
“We get a little bit of June sweet corn harvested in Delaware that is grown using plastic mulch or covers but the Fourth of July is traditionally the start of the state's corn crop,” says Gordon Johnson, an agriculture agent with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.
Last month, Johnson had his doubts as to whether sweet corn would be ready for the holiday weekend. “We had a cold, wet spring and early plantings have suffered,” says Johnson. “A lot of growers had to re-plant because their first planting was ruined from too much rain.” But the corn did, in fact, arrive for the Fourth, although in more limited quantities than usual.
To have a constant supply through the summer, sweet corn growers must put in many plantings. “Typically, planting starts in late March and continues every week through mid July,” says Johnson. “And the growers who have farm stands, who want a fresh product into October, will continue planting through the end of July.”
About one third of the sweet corn grown in Delaware -- 3,500 acres -- goes to the fresh market, which includes farm stands, farmers' markets and grocery stores. The rest -- 6,300 acres -- is grown for processing.
Most of the sweet corn grown in Delaware for local sale are white varieties. Johnson explains that there is a strong regional taste preference for yellow corn in the Midwest states, bi-color in the North and white in the South.
Sweet corn has come a long way from the days when Silver Queen ruled the farm stands.
“People still ask for it but nobody grows that any more,” says Johnson. “There has been a revolution in the last two decades in the creation of varieties that retain their sugar longer.”
The new sugar-enhanced varieties have a high sugar content and creamy texture. “Supersweet” have even more sugar, crisp kernels and hold their sugars longer. Some of the newer varieties have a mixture of sugar-enhanced and supersweet kernels that offer even better eating qualities.
Delaware's corn crop falls into two categories -- sweet corn as a vegetable and field corn for animal feed. There are 170,000 acres of field corn grown in Delaware. “About 99 percent of the state's field corn goes to the poultry industry for poultry feed. The industry would take even more if we could give them more,” notes Johnson.
Although corn for fuel is a burgeoning market in the Corn Belt, which is centered in Iowa and Illinois, no Delaware corn is grown for ethanol production, says Johnson.
Field corn growers don't have particularly high labor costs since planting and harvesting is done mechanically. The biggest challenge to these growers comes from the fact that corn costs a lot to grow. “Corn seed is pricier than soybean seed and the nitrogen fertilizer that corn requires is expensive,” says Johnson. Sweet corn growers have additional labor costs. Some smaller growers harvest by hand; larger growers harvest by machine and then use large numbers of laborers to pack the corn into crates for shipping.
Wet weather has made for a more challenging season than last year, when not only was weather good but grain prices were sky-high for field corn. It would have been a bumper crop if not for the late season drought that lowered yields in 2008.
“In 2008, prices were unheard of -- East Coast corn farmers were contracting grain corn as high as $8 a bushel,” says Johnson. “Previously, $3 a bushel was considered good.
Floods in the Midwest drove prices up last year,” explains Johnson. Wholesale sweet corn prices also were above average last year.
This year, prices are still above average -- at around $3 to $4 a bushel -- but no longer at historic highs.
Learn how to can corn
Want to learn the best (and safest) way to can and flash freeze fresh corn? Check out the sweet corn and green bean class on Saturday, July 11, at 1 p.m. at Fifer's Country Store in Wyoming, Del. University of Delaware Cooperative Extension educator Kathleen Splane will demonstrate proper techniques for canning and freezing these veggies. It's part of her “Canning College” series, which is held once a month through October. For more information, go to the Fifer Web site and click on the events page.