Sweet Corn Growers to Cut It Close for Fourth of July

6/29/2013 1:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Sweet corn growers in southeastern Pennsylvania expect to have corn on the market by July Fourth, while farmers in other parts of the state expect to be close to or later than that traditional benchmark for corn to hit the consumer market.

The contrast with last year has been stark. Last year, the harvest began in mid-June after a very mild winter. This year, cooler weather and a frost around Mothers’ Day have jeopardized many farmers’ chances of meeting their goal.

Clark Stauffer, who runs Indian Run Farm in Lancaster County, estimates that the cool weather has put him a week behind, but he still hopes to start picking by July 1. He does not believe the late frost will decrease his early yields by much.

His corn has had tassels since early June, and he usually picks 3-3 1/2 weeks after seeing tassels.

He sprayed for weeds in the third week of March. The spray’s effect has dissipated over the past few weeks, but not enough to interfere with the corn’s growth.

He noticed that raccoons had opened a few ears already this year. The animals are smart and know when the corn is at its best, Stauffer said, as they usually target the corn only a day or so before picking.

Julie Flinchbaugh says she hopes to have corn around the end of June at her York County produce stand. Flinchbaugh thinks her supplier should have a good amount of the crop ready for the Independence Day holiday.

Tim Elkner, horticulture educator for the Lancaster Extension office, also thinks his county will be ready.

Aside from a late freeze in May and a little hail, Elkner says, “There is no reason to believe there is anything out of the ordinary” about the 2013 season.

Farther west, Steve Bogash of the Franklin County Extension reports a “really smooth” season with advanced silk development on the ears of transplanted crops. Direct-seeded corn should be available by the second week of July, he estimates.

Bogash anticipates the earlier corn hitting the market this weekend. Chambersburg-area consumers will likely not find an abundance of sweet corn for July Fourth, “but it should not be challenging to find” either, Bogash says.

As for pests, Bogash has seen only one corn earworm in all of his traps.

Franklin County farmer and roadside stand operator Joe Brubaker, for whom transplanted sweet corn is one of his main crops, does not expect to have his product out for the Fourth.

“Probably July 6,” he said, laughingly noting that he too is a week behind where he wants to be.

Brubaker cites the cooler spring as the major cause for missing the ideal date. Corn borers have also been an obstacle for Brubaker, though he has not had any weed problems so far.

In the Lehigh Valley, grower Melanie Fink says “it’s going to be close” to get her corn to the stand for July Fourth. Like others, Fink points to the lack of hot weather as a setback.

While her corn is showing silk, “we haven’t gotten the heat we need to push” the ears, she says.

Fink, whose family has about 150 acres in sweet corn, contracts with supermarkets, runs two retail outlets and serves several smaller customers.

Fink said her fields have had sufficient rain, which has made irrigation unnecessary.

The cool, damp weather has led to a slow start and weed problems for Dennis Koehler of Dale Koehler Farms near Bethlehem.

Koehler, whose family sells crops at a stand and occasionally to local restaurants, is hoping to have ears ready for July Fourth, but he thinks that may be a stretch.

Despite the shorter growing season, Koehler expects his yield will be similar to what he has gotten in previous years. He is, however, several weeks behind where he was the past few years, when favorable conditions gave him corn for Father’s Day.

While eastern Pennsylvania farmers still have a chance to supply local sweet corn in time for patriotic cookouts, farmers in western Pennsylvania believe they will miss the July Fourth target.

A mid-May freeze killed Ed Shenot’s first planting of noncovered sweet corn, forcing him to replant. Recent evenings with temperatures in the 50s have also “put the brakes on” corn growth, Shenot says.

Shenot, whose family owns a farm and market in Wexford, near Pittsburgh, said the covered rows are “coming along” and are just starting to see pests.

Though the Shenots face lighter yields for corn and tomatoes, and a later sweet corn arrival compared with 2012, they are relying for now on their other produce, such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale, for sales at their farm market.

Contrasting with the optimism of more southerly corn farmers, Bill Klenz of Erie County said this season has been “not the greatest.”

The May frost hit his corn when his noncovered crops were 2½-3 inches tall.

Klenz predicts “a big gap” for farmers in his region compared with those in other areas when Erie-region corn farmers start harvesting later in July.

His plastic-covered corn survived the frost and is now close to making tassel. Some farms near the Pennsylvania-New York border already have tassels, he says.

A clerk at Burch Farms Country Market in North East, outside Erie, said she usually tells customers sweet corn will be available for July Fourth, but she was not sure that would happen this year because of the erratic weather.

The late-June scarcity in sweet corn has at least meant higher wholesale prices for farmers. A dozen ears at Weaverland Produce Auction in New Holland were selling recently for $4.50-$6.50, compared with $2.50-$4.50 at the same time last year.

At 16,000 acres statewide, Pennsylvania contains about 6 percent of the nation’s sweet corn acreage. The United States produces more than 2 billion pounds of sweet corn per year.<\c> Photos by Stan Hall

Corn silks are developing on the ears at Clark Stauffer’s farm in Ephrata Township, Pa.

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