Corn stands as tall as eight feet across Maryland farmlands, growing into what promises to be a bumper crop.
That's good news for consumers, hungry for one of Maryland's favorite summer side dishes.
But it might be bad news for farmers, who might be unable to cash in on their golden fields.
"We are looking at a great crop but drastic prices," said Kelly Hereth, executive director of the Carroll County Farm Service Agency.
Maryland corn usually hits its peak in August, and consumer demand appears to be high for sweeter varieties that keep their flavor longer -- one reason local groceries and roadside stands are stocking more corn.
Evidence of corn's popularity can be found at the roadside stand of Mount Airy farmer William Knill, who sells more than 125 dozen ears of corn each day of the weekend.
Every morning, his grandsons pull fresh ears from 20 acres of sweet corn to sell for $3 a dozen along Route 27, just outside the town limits.
Many people think the warm weather produces sweeter corn, but Knill knows better.
"It is more about variety and genetics than weather," Knill said.
His customers prefer Sweet Rhythm and Delectable, bi-colored varieties with succulent yellow and white kernels, "the best of both parents," Knill said.
The new varieties -- Immaculata, Ecstasy and Sweet Rhythm -- have dethroned Silver Queen, the silvery white corn that reigned supreme over summer produce for more than two decades.
New seeds are producing the most attractive colors, tastes and textures in corn history, and growers are frequently getting two ears to a stalk.
"A really attractive ear is strong, vigorous green, and 8 to 9 inches long," said Chuck McClurg, associate professor of natural resource sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park.
When you pull back the thick husk and see 16 to 18 rows of deep kernels with no insect damage, "you should have corn that tastes good and feels good in your mouth," McClurg said.
Although sweet corn is selling briskly at produce stands and groceries across Maryland, the demand for field corn -- tougher kernels suitable only for livestock feed -- is down, and market prices are tumbling.
A good field-corn crop could help grain farmers recover from the losses incurred during the drought last summer, the worst in three decades.
To make a decent profit, growers need $3 a bushel for field corn. The market price this week is $2.26 a bushel, half the price paid two years ago, when each of 465,000 acres across the state was yielding 139 bushels of feed corn.
"Even the drought in Texas has not helped buoy the prices," said Hereth. "International demand for feed corn has fallen off, and there is a carry-over supply from bumper crops last year in the Midwest. For corn prices to tumble in July is really unusual and not a good sign."
In Mount Airy, Knill has about 150 acres planted in feed corn, a primary source of income. He plants sweet corn for the roadside stand and wholesale.
In what has become a global grain market, he is unsure of a profit from field corn.
"Corn got a good start and should be a reasonable crop," he said. "But you have to consider the Asian money crisis, exports that are not as strong as usual and a world supply of grain picking up in volume."
Though prices for feed corn are down, farmers such as Dick Weaver of Hampstead might make up the difference with increased sales of sweet corn.
Weaver, who supplies farmers' markets in Towson and Westminster, planted about 35 acres in sweet corn this season, all in the genetically enhanced varieties. The yield is great, the taste is superb, and retail prices are respectable and steady at $3 a dozen.
"Immaculata is my mainstay right now," Weaver said. "It is kind of divine and has done an excellent job for us."
He pulled his first field July 2.
"Sometimes early corn can be bland, but not with the varieties used now," he said.
Farmers such as Weaver "have gone to the new varieties because they ship better," said Robert Rouse, regional specialist with the University of Maryland's Wye Research Center near Easton. "You don't have to pull it and get it to the table right away. When I know it's super-sweet corn, I know it's going to be OK for a few days."
The sugar content decreases rapidly once corn is picked -- hence the rush to cook within 12 hours or risk what Rouse calls a "cobby" taste.
But those time constraints were attached to Silver Queen, a variety so unpopular that it has been dropped from the state's annually published list of recommended vegetable seeds.
Despite genetic advances, the calorie count has remained constant at 80 per ear, and still no cholesterol.
Now that there is a super-sweet variety, can corn get too sweet?
"It is already a dessert," said Rouse. "You might want to age it a day or two."
Pub Date: 8/05/98