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Sweet corn grown for supermarkets

It's 9 a.m. Sam Smith's crew has been harvesting sweet corn for three hours, slogging through mud and muck from 7 inches of rain over the past seven days… and it looks as if the bottom's about to fall out again.

He started harvesting his crop June 11 and in the week after, it rained nearly every day, leaving the 200-acre field a swampy mess.

But the harvest kept right on.

“We only stop for lightning — and Saturday, the day the Mexican crew takes off,” says the Humphreys County, Miss., farmer, looking across the field where 14 to 16 men are rapidly stripping ears and tossing them onto the ungainly machine called a “mule train” that's creeping steadily down the long rows, its long arms spanning eight rows on either side.

On the machine, there's a flurry of activity as another 20 or so men and women open and position shipping boxes, pack them with the requisite ear count (48), shut the boxes, and stack them on the semi-truck that will take the corn an hour's journey to Sand Hill, Miss., where his partner, Roy Nichols, operates a hydrocooler facility and has a farming operation that this year also includes sweet corn.

There the corn is sprayed with a high volume of cold water to take the heat out, after which it's stored for a short while in a cold room, and then loaded on refrigerated trucks for shipment to chain supermarkets around the country.

And what corn it is: picture perfect ears, with nary a worm to be seen, and plump, juicy kernels bursting with flavor.

“It's absolutely the sweetest, juiciest, most flavorful corn I've ever run across,” Smith says. “It's so good, you can eat it right off the stalk — no butter, no salt, no nothing.

“We shipped a load to a grocer who's known to be very hard to please about the produce he buys for his stores. After it had been delivered, the driver phoned back and said the grocer picked an ear at random, shucked it, tasted it, and ate the whole ear, commenting, ‘That's the finest sweet corn I've ever put in my mouth.’”

The harvesting operation has also provided something of a show for area residents who'd never seen one of the “mule train” machines, which his partner acquired in Louisiana. Smith says hundreds of people driving along busy Highway 49 have stopped on the side of the road to watch.

Normally, he notes, the machine is self-propelled, but because many spots are too muddy, they've had to push it along with a tractor.

Despite the weather adversities, “We're on schedule,” he said a week into the harvest. He was projecting a finish date of June 28, at which time the machine and crew would move to Rankin County for two weeks or so to harvest his partner's sweet corn.

Smith, whose family has been farming in this area for decades, says he and other growers have been searching for ways to diversity and improve cash flow.

“It used to be that farmers here were able to do all right with the land and crops their families had been farming for generations. But then the cost of growing cotton, soybeans, and traditional crops started escalating and about the only thing farmers could do was expand or go out of business.

“Our farm is about 1,100 acres — 200 corn, 200 soybeans, the rest cotton — and we just haven't been in a position to compete with our peers in this area for more land. So, we've had to look for other opportunities to generate additional cash flow on the land we have. We don't want to abandon our traditional crops; we just want to diversify and reduce our risk exposure while waiting for cotton and soybean crops to come off.

“We have some of the finest agricultural land in the country right here in the Mississippi Delta. At least 30 vegetables and fruits could be produced here, with farmers who have the expertise to grow them. But it takes some effort and ingenuity to make the right connections, line up markets, etc.

“Several growers have done well with sweet potatoes; last year, some contracted to grow a new low-nicotine tobacco for a cigarette manufacturer, and produced an excellent crop. Mississippi has long had a reputation for its sweet potatoes, watermelons, cotton, and rice, but the word's not out yet about the great sweet corn we can grow. We want to change that.”

A friend with extensive experience in the grocery business suggested that Smith look at the potential for sweet corn and put him in touch with Nichols, who was already in the produce business, with a cooling plant.

“We hit it off and have worked well together. We have a broker who's experienced in the grocery trade, with connections nationally, who lines up markets for us.”

Smith's corn was planted “around Easter,” and includes several different “super sweet” varieties, both yellow and bi-color, from Siegers Seed and Abbott & Cobb. Planting was staggered to spread out harvest, which was timed to take advantage of the demand surge around the Fourth of July holiday period.

Seeding rate varied according to variety, from 23,000 to 27,000 plants per acre. The field was sprayed every other day with Asana to prevent worm damage.

The crop was grown, Smith says, to meet strict USDA grading requirements for U.S. #1 Fancy sweet corn. “To qualify, an ear must be more than 6 inches long and 2 inches in diameter, with no worm damage on the tip and no dryback on the shucks.

“We count on one ear per stalk that meets the USDA standard,” Smith says. “On some stalks, there may be a second ear that qualifies. The workers have been trained so they can visually spot those ears.” Everything else is left in the field, but, he says, in the future he will investigate the potential for silage or other uses.

“We don't have any hard-and-fast numbers yet, but our best ‘guesstimate’ is that we're getting 400 boxes per acre,” Smith says. “On our best day, we harvested seven semi-truckloads, about 16,660 boxes.”

He didn't contract the entire production in advance “because we wanted to be sure we had something to sell.” Instead, “We're matching sales to what we harvest.” And for area residents who want high-quality corn for eating and freezing, he's making sales from the field.

“The U.S. sweet corn harvest starts in Florida in January and February, and they get the big money by being first to market. As the harvest moves north, the price to the grower is less and less. The Florida grower may get $18 a box, and by the time the harvest gets to Illinois, it may have dropped to $6 a box.”

Smith declines, “for contractual reasons,” to say what his per-box target price is, but says he's expecting a good return. “And one nice thing: Grocery stores pay on a 30-day basis, which is a lot shorter than when you're selling cotton and soybeans.”

But, he says, “We have to be aware that the grocery trade is very supply-sensitive. Even if I have a good year with sweet corn, I wouldn't go out next year and plant my whole farm with it; there's just too much risk.”

Smith hopes the forays that he and others have made into alternate crops will serve as inspiration to other area farmers.

“This is a low-income area, and we need to find ways to bring it up. I'm middle-aged, and before I get out of farming, I'd like to see farmers here growing things like broccoli, peas, beans, and other vegetables and fruits.

“Opportunities are there, if we'll dig for them. It's just a matter of making contacts, doing homework, lining up markets, and taking advantage of those opportunities.”

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