Heavy rains may have hurt Maryland's sweet corn crop

On The Farm

July 23, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

As a sure sign of summer, roadside produce markets dot the landscape across Maryland, with sweet corn on the cob often the item that is most in demand.

In many cases, corn bought at farmers' markets or roadside stands has been plucked from stalks that same day.

Though the supply is adequate, farmers and state officials are warning that sweet corn may become scarce later in the season, especially around Labor Day.

And any shortage will be blamed on the cloud-busting storms that raked much of Maryland at the end of last month.

Phil Councell Jr. grows sweet corn on his farm near Cordova in Talbot County and sells it at the Rainbow Farm Store on U.S. 50, about five miles north of Easton.

He said farmers typically stagger sweet corn plantings seven to 10 days apart to help ensure a steady supply during the selling season.

Councell planted 22 one-acre corn plots. Seed went into the ground for the last section the day before the heavy rains came, he said, and the rain took a heavy toll, washing some of the seeds away, while some rotted in the field.

"I probably lost about 50 percent of that planting," Councell said. It was the portion he would likely be harvesting just before Labor Day.

"My guess is that there are a lot of other farmers in the same boat," he said. "There may not be a lot of corn on the market near the end of the season."

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley concurred that some of this year's crop will be lost to the weather, but he added that one silver lining is that the surviving corn looks good.

"The rains seemed to help the corn that was nearing harvest," he said. "It is looking beautiful, absolutely beautiful."

Maryland's sweet corn crop is smaller than you might think. The vast majority of the corn fields that motorist pass on their way to Ocean City or other parts of the state produce corn used as animal feed.

Maryland farmers harvested only 4,700 acres of sweet corn last year, according to Norman Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland farm statistics office. Sales totaled $9.2 million.

By comparison, farmers harvested 400,000 acres of corn for grain last year that sold for $108 million.

The bulk of the grain corn, along with Maryland's big soybean crop, is made into chicken feed to support the Eastern Shore's giant poultry industry.

In many cases, Riley said, sweet corn is a sideline business to help boost farm sales.

"It is the king of roadside sales," he said. "And it is quite an attraction at farmers' markets. It's the main draw that attracts consumers to farmers' markets."

Riley said prices probably will range between $2.50 and $4 a dozen this year, similar to prices in recent years.

"The early corn brings the best money," said Riley. "The key to making money is get a good quality corn on the market early."

While corn usually starts showing up at roadside stands in mid-June, Riley said July 4 is usually the unofficial start of the market.

"Everybody is looking for it at that time," he said. "It's the cookout season, and sweet corn is an ideal picnic item."

Looking at the farm economics of sweet corn, Riley said a farmer could make $500 to $600 from each acre of corn planted. But growing sweet corn is labor intensive, he said.

Sweet corn is picked by hand, whereas giant machines can harvest six or more rows of grain corn at the same time with one operator sitting in the air-conditioned cab of a combine.

As of Monday, 18 percent of Maryland's sweet corn had been harvested, Bennett said. This is slightly ahead of last year's pace as well as the average for the past five years.

Hall of Fame

The state is looking for a few good farmers with high standards of conduct, leadership qualities that have made contributions to their communities, and achievements in agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture is accepting nominations of farmers and farm families for the Governor's Agriculture Hall of Fame, an annual distinction that pays tribute to those who have dedicated their lives to Maryland's leading industry.

"Farmers are the solid foundation of our state and a vital part of our future," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said in announcing the call for nominations. "They provide the food, fiber and farmland from which we all benefit."

Any farm family that derives its income principally from farming is eligible for the award.

Nomination forms are available from the state Department of Agriculture or local cooperative extension offices.

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held during the Maryland Agricultural Dinner with state officials and members of the General Assembly in February.

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