Sweet corn is a hot commodity at the mercy of the weather

Tuesday, July 3, 2012
By Joe Crea
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

You’ll find plenty of sweet corn in local markets this summer. You may even find some Ohio-grown corn on local farm stands as early as this week.

Just don’t hang your hat on finding it everywhere, or at windfall prices.

It’s a bit early to solidly predict the 2012 harvest of local sweet corn. Extended periods of high heat can be beneficial to corn crops. But low rainfall could prove destructive.

“We are thinking it may be one of the earliest seasons on record,” says Paula Szalay, whose family operates Szalay’s Farm in Peninsula.

Corn likes heat, Szalay says. Coupled with the higher water levels available on her family farm on Riverview Road in the Cuyahoga Valley, “the corn is using [both] to its advantage,” she says.

But if the recent dry weather persists, it could herald big problems, farmers agree.

Statewide, according to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus, this year’s sweet corn crop could end up being “only 50 or 60 percent of normal yields,” according to spokeswoman Lauren Ketcham.

“The hot, dry weather really affects pollination, but it is sometimes hard to forecast yields until farmers start picking and see the condition of the ears,” wrote Ketcham in an email.

Conditions are less than desirable east of Cleveland, says Craig Sirna, owner of Sirna’s Farm & Market in Auburn.

“As far as I know, everyone out in these parts is behind because of the drought,” says Sirna.

“We haven’t had ANY rain to speak of,” he says. “I think I’ve had less than a quarter-inch of rain over the past three weeks — and other [growers] are measuring by the tenths of inches.

“I don’t even know how my corn is growing,” Sirna adds.

According to OEFFA, a membership-based, grass-roots organization whose mission is “promoting and supporting sustainable, ecological and healthful food systems,” early plantings of corn generally fare better than later plantings. Residual water in the ground from winter snowfall and spring rains is a boon to initial seedlings, but it must be replaced by seasonal rains.

“But [corn crops are] all under stress right now,” Ketcham writes. “Those farmers who can irrigate their crops are spending a lot of time and money to get water to them.”

Irrigation is a salvation of sorts for Pochedly Farms in Mantua, says family member Jeff Pochedly. But it costs significant money to move water to fields, he adds.

“So far this year we’ve spent about $2,000 on diesel fuel, just on irrigation alone,” Pochedly says. “And you have all the wear-and-tear on the irrigation equipment.

“But still you can’t cover everything — and it’s not like having natural rain,” he adds.

Critical stages of development, such as when the corn starts to tassel and when the ears begin to fill with enlarging kernels, are when significant rainfall matters most.

But rain also has to span several, staggered plantings. Most farmers plant sweet corn in phases to ensure a steady supply of the crop through a season that extends into early fall. Those “critical stages” repeat several times each season for subsequent plantings.

Which means forecasting this year’s harvest involves equal parts agricultural expertise, hope and guesswork.

The Pochedlys, who sell corn to the Heinen’s supermarket chain, are several days from picking the 80-acre spread the family cultivates in Portage County. They just wrapped up their eighth and final planting of the season. For now, it’s a matter of sitting back and hoping for a few stretches of good rainfall.

“There won’t be a lot of volume until the first week of August,” says Pochedly. If all goes well, he adds, the days surrounding Labor Day will be a big weekend.

Szalay of the Peninsula family farm remains philosophical.

“The best-laid plans don’t always come through,” she says. “But right now, we’re hopeful.”