Shucks! At Delmus Hickman's produce stand, a face longer than the stalks tells the story of a strange growing season that makes corn just a sweet dream.

Beach Life: Rituals

July 31, 1998|By Laura Lippman

She stands on the side of an asphalt driveway, as forlorn as any would-be club-goer on the wrong side of the velvet ropes. All that corn, all those beans in the achingly precious plain brown bags. Those potatoes. But really, it's the corn she covets. Is there -- ? Could he -- ?

"All promised," Delmus Hickman says. At 10 a.m.? At 10 a.m., he says firmly. "But tell you what. I can pick you some beans if you'll wait."

And he scampers -- no other word for it, even at age 67, Delmus Hickman scampers to his nearby bean patch. But no more sweet corn, not today, no matter how long a face you pull. Try the grocery store, try the bigger produce stands closer to the Coastal Highway. There's only so much one man and eight acres can do.

Besides, it's been a bad year for sweet corn. Been a bad year for everything.

"Worst year I've ever had in my life. Warm at first, too hot. Then it came cold," Hickman says. "I had to use fertilizer instead of chicken manure. Maybe that burned my potatoes. I didn't grow one-tenth of what I usually grow. The tomatoes aren't ready, they're late this year. It's been an odd year."

Hickman is a retired chicken farmer. He and his wife, Betty Lou, started their side yard produce stand as a way to teach their grandchildren the value of a dollar. Now here they are, a few miles due west of Bethany, being reminded every day of the value of a dollar, or the lack thereof. The zucchini is doing all right -- try and not grow zucchini. But it's the sweet corn their customers crave, and its season is so short.

Sweet corn, but not Silver Queen. Don't speak to Hickman of Silver Queen. He grows Sweet Ice, which came in just as June was ending, and Brilliance, a sugar-enhanced variety that will come later on. He pulls out a chart, showing all the varieties and rating them for disease resistance. But it's the dollars and cents that tell the story -- $1.89 per pound for Silver Queen seed corn, $9.99 for Sweet Ice and Brilliance costs more still.

Hickman grew up on a big farm, 60,000-plus acres, one of nine children. He remembers plowing the corn fields at season's end, how the hurled bits of greenery, sharp as razor blades, cut and chafed his face.

He said: "Daddy, you'll never catch me looking at a mule in the behind for the rest of my life."

His father said: "It's in your blood. Of all my children, you're the one who's going to grow up to be a farmer."

Farmer knows best.

"Beach Life" is a summer-long series of dispatches from the shore.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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