DOAG: SEASON-EXTENDING TECHNIQUES HELP FARMERS MEET DEMAND FOR EARLY CORN


     NEWS FROM THE CONNECTICUT DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE


                                                            

 

CONTACT:                                                                                                                                                              July 9, 2014

Steve Jensen

860-713-2519-office

860-983-3556- cell

Steve.Jensen@ct.gov

 

         
                                                          This article appeared in the July 9, 2014 edition of the CT Weekly Agricultural Report

 

   SEASON-EXTENDING TECHNIQUES HELP FARMERS

MEET DEMAND FOR EARLY CORN
By Steve Jensen, Office of DoAg Cmsr. Steven K. Reviczky

 

The countless thousands of Connecticut residents who got their first taste of local sweet corn over July 4th weekend probably never gave a thought to the months of work it took to produce those ears by the traditional start of corn season.

 

Farmers Chris Anderson and Tom Baggott may run vastly different-sized operations, but they tell similar stories of how they managed to meet early demand in a year that started with a stubbornly chilly spring.

 

Both men say they never would have gotten their product ready for market if they had not given nature a helping hand from an increasingly-popular growing aid: row covers.

 

The mesh fabric covers help warm the soil and speed germination, root growth and maturity – an especially invaluable tool this year.

 

“If we didn’t use the row covers we probably wouldn’t have had corn until the 10th or 15th,” of July, said Anderson, a retired New Britain firefighter who farms about 90 acres in Old Wethersfield.        

 

East Windsor-based Baggott - whose 700 acres of corn likely makes him the state’s largest grower – planted about 100 acres with row covers and/or clear plastic mulch in early April. That allowed him to start picking in mid-June, and be the first to deliver sweet corn to Connecticut farm stands and supermarkets.

 

“It was very difficult to do this year,” Baggott said while tending to an enormous cornfield he has worked for more than 40 years along the Massachusetts border and the Connecticut River. “It’s easy to sell corn right now, but it’s expensive to grow it.”

Raising an acre of corn under cover costs about $1,200 an acre, he said, roughly double that of a “regular” acre. Baggott says he is lucky if he gets three growing seasons out of a 52-foot-wide roll of cover, which he removes when the plant reaches about waist high.

 

“The wind tears it up, the deer trample it – only bad things happen after you put it down,” he said.

 

But the unacceptable alternative is simply not having any corn at all until mid-July.

 

“Nobody has corn now without using some kind of forcing method,” like the covers or plastic, he said. “You plant it as early as you can and just hope it doesn’t frost too much.”

 

Following the poor spring and a harsh frost on April 18, growing conditions have been close to ideal.

 

“Once we got through the bad weather, it’s been an excellent growing season,” he said. “We have a fantastic yield of corn this year.”

 

For Baggott, however, there is a business downside to the increased use of the covers and the early, consistent product they help deliver.

 

“Ten years ago this early corn was a niche crop,” he said.  “There was never enough for the farm stands. Now it’s a commodity, and there might even be too much. It’s not a bonanza anymore.”

 

Anderson Farms’ small crew picks from their fields throughout the day depending on demand. They also wholesale to about ten other stands in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and typically harvest yearly about 10,000-15,000 bags that each hold 60 ears.

 

A few years ago we picked 17,000 bags,” said  Anderson’s brother, Craig.  “That’s a million ears of corn. All by hand.”

 

Baggott also does not use a picking machine, which can pinch and damage the ears.His fluctuating workforce of between 100 and 250 typically handpicks about 10,000 bags a week in mid-summer. That output is doubled to perhaps 20,000 bags a week starting in September, when he begins to ship more product to the South.

 

Baggott’s corn and other produce can be found in North Carolina Wal-Mart stores and the Publix grocery chain in Jacksonville, Florida. He also plants another 1,600 acres of vegetables, including squash, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers.

 

His workers on this day were picking and packing 4,000 boxes of squash holding 20 pounds apiece.

 

Of course, being that large can have a flip side. Baggott says he lost more than $2 million worth of crops to flooding and wind damage during Hurricane Irene in August of 2011. Crop insurance only covered a small fraction of the damage.

 

Both he and the Andersons stagger their planting through the summer so they have fresh corn to sell, hopefully, as late as Columbus Day.

 

“We normally sell as much after Labor Day as we do before,” Chris Anderson said.

 

They began offering their first ears last Thursday morning, and by afternoon his pickers were hustling to keep up with the demand at their Broad Street stand – a prelude to an even bigger weekend rush.

 

“It’s been really busy,” said worker Briana Flannery as she bagged order after order. “Everybody wants corn because it’s the first day we have it.”

 

A day earlier, as he drove his tractor through a dusty field that will be harvested in the weeks to come, Chris Anderson confessed that he couldn’t hold out for the weekend to sample this year’s first butter-and-sugar.

 

So there’s early corn, and then there’s the kind of insider-early corn that only comes with being a grower who has worked for months to get it to the table.

 

“I picked eight today for dinner,” he said with a smile. “So technically I got the first ears of the year.”