Sweet Corn is the quintessential 4th of July food, and as I mentioned last week, we take a lot of pride in harvesting it before July 4th each year. Ideally in time to get our CSA subscribers in time for the holiday.
This year the timing of the calendar and the holiday meant that that didn’t happen. Instead, you’re getting corn today, July 5th (or later). Turns out it’s not really that easy to have fresh sweet corn available in time for July 4th, even in a generally temperature area like ours.
It makes sense that corn is so enmeshed in our national birthday celebration. In many ways, it is our national crop. It has been grown in North America since way before Europeans arrived, and is now grown on more acres than any other crop — 90 million of them, to be exact. The vast majority of that corn is harvested in the fall once the kernels have dried, and either turned into grain, animal feed or fuel.
Historically, a small amount of young corn was harvested before the kernels developed too much starch. That would have been your 4th of July corn. And it likely was not ready every year, but only on certain years — making it even more special.
But modern Sweet Corn is not immature commodity grain corn harvested before it gets dry and hard. Rather it’s an entirely different type with hundreds of varieties, bred to be harvested as a vegetable rather than a grain. It is grown on 500,000 acres in the U.S. — and even then, most of that is for frozen or canned corn.
Harvesting a crop of freshly picked sweet corn in time for the 4th of July is not easy, even in California, and is essentially impossible in a majority of states in the U.S. Corn is native to Mexico, has little tolerance for cold and wet weather, and cannot survive either snow or freezing temperatures. Under ideal conditions — i.e. warm and dry weather — the earliest varieties will produce ears about 10 weeks after planting. That means seeding it by April 15th.
The problem is that most of the United States is not warm and dry in mid-April, or even necessarily in late April. Like all other crops, corn can’t be planted if it’s raining. Or if the ground is muddy and wet. And if you plant it the day before a big storm and the field floods, the seeds will rot in the ground. Yet April tends to be a rainy month in many parts of the U.S. ( “April Showers bring May Flowers.)”
Even under normal spring conditions, corn grows quite slowly at best. That can add a week or two to the length of time it takes for the corn to mature. So even if a farmer manages to get sweet corn planted by April 15th, there is no guarantee it will be ready in time for July 4th. But if it is planted too soon or if the weather after planting is too warm, it may be ready too early. Corn has a short window for harvesting before it gets overmature, and has a short shelf life.
At Terra Firma, if conditions are favorable, we can and have planted sweet corn as early as March 15th. One year we even had it ready for harvest the first week of June.
But cold, wet springs like this one are always a scramble to get the corn planted. We did four plantings over a ten day period — some before rain, some immediately after — in less than ideal conditions. Then we waited.
In the end, three of the four “4th of July” corn fields made it over the finish line…barely, and we started harvesting last Friday. The fourth was tilled in back in May due to a poor stand. But none was ready soon enough to get CSA subscribers corn in time for the holiday. We would have needed to be harvesting by Thursday at the latest.
If you went looking for organically grown Sweet Corn at the store or farmers’ market this weekend, you probably know that there was a general shortage of it.
And while the corn itself was late in arriving, its biggest fans were not. I’m talking about the Corn Earworms, the caterpillars that hatch into the silk at the top of the ears and then feast on the kernels at the tip before they are even fully formed. It seems that every ear of corn we are picking right now has a caterpillar, or evidence of one. If bugs gross you out, I would recommend you chop the tips off your corn before removing the husk. It’s a topic for another newsletter, but the worms are essentially impossible to control organically.