What goes better with outdoor cooking, summer and Independence Day in Delaware? Corn on the cob, of course!
Ah, summers on Delmarva. Kids are out of school, families vacation at the beach and just about everyone has their backyard grills fired up.
No matter what else you’re serving, there’s sure to be a clamoring for corn on the cob. Cook it in a pot of boiling water or wrap it up in foil and roast it; any way it’s prepared, a plate of Delaware sweet corn will be on just about anybody’s menu.
The harvest of Delaware’s sweet corn crop can be found fresh, canned or frozen in supermarkets or sold right off the stalk at any one of numerous roadside produce stands.
In 2011, the state had approximately 8,300 acres of land involved in corn produced for dinner and picnic tables, with a value of more than $14 million. That reflects a drop in production, primarily due to the recession, but still shows corn is one of the most popular products of Delaware farms.
“Corn is a summer tradition on Delmarva,” said Mike Fennemore, a member of a fourth generation of farmers at Fifer Orchards outside of Camden-Wyoming.
“Sweet corn is a staple for barbecues and picnics,” he added. “The reason for that, I think, is that it’s well liked by children and adults, it’s fun to eat and it’s easy to prepare.”
Corn today is very different from its wild relatives of several thousand years ago, said Gordon Johnson, assistant professor for plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware.
American Indians cultivated the plant long before the appearance of Europeans, and they did their own selective breeding with their crops, Johnson said.
“Man has really had a lot to do with the types of corn we have now,” he said.
In addition to the sweet types of corn, other varieties were developed that are used for animal feed, oil or corn meal and even popcorn.
Sweet corn is entirely different from those types, Johnson said. Corn contains both sugars and starches, and it’s the amount of each that makes sweet corn so tasty.
“Sweet corn has high levels of sugar, and that makes it much different,” he said.
There’s also a variety of sweet corn known as “super sweet,” which contains even more sugar than regular sweet corn and tends to stay fresher longer than regular sweet corn.
Varieties of corn with white kernels are popular down south while the yellow types are preferred in the Plains states. Delawareans seem to like both, and bi-colored corn – ears with both white and yellow kernels – also find their way to dinner tables.
Locally grown corn retains its sweetness for a week to 10 days after harvesting if it is not refrigerated, Johnson said. If people plan to wait several days before eating their fresh corn, it’s best to leave it wrapped in its natural husk and to keep it well refrigerated, he said.
While fresh ears of corn have been popping up in groceries around Kent County, they probably were grown on farms in the southern United States, where the planting season begins earlier. Locally grown corn, appearing in stores around the Independence Day weekend, would have been seeded in early April, since a plant takes between 70 and 90 days to mature, Johnson said.
Different farming techniques, particularly where plastic sheeting is used to increase ground temperature, can bring crops in earlier than usual, he said.
“Most of our local farmers will try to put in some early corn with the hope of hitting the Fourth of July market,” Johnson said.
At Fifer Orchards, colder than usual weather delayed spring planting this year, but field crews are working to catch up.
“We’re harvesting every day now,” Fennemore said.
Farmers also stagger planting times to ensure they have a steady crop throughout the summer; some plant as late as the second week in July so they can harvest almost up to the beginning of autumn.
That’s a technique practiced at Fifer’s.
“We plant over a period of time from April for quite a few weeks in a row so we can extend our season,” Fennemore said. “This way, we have fresh corn every day from the end of June through the end of September.”
That practice allows farmers to put in as many as 12 different plantings per season, Johnson said.
It’s also a given that some of this year’s corn plantings will be affected by all the rain that’s hit Delmarva recently, Fennemore said.
“Just like anything else in farming, what we do is weather-related,” he said. It’s been a challenge getting the heavy farm equipment out into the fields, particularly in recent weeks because the machinery can get bogged down in the wet ground.
The weather has affected more than just Delaware. Several corn-growing areas of the country experienced record-setting rainfall amounts in June, resulting in the worst corn planting season in two decades, according to Colvin & Co., an agriculture-based investment managing firm.
As a result, corn prices have been unstable and it’s estimated corn production may drop because farmers have been forced to plant late.
Area supermarkets have been carrying either white or bi-colored corn at between $1.98 and $2 for a bag of 10.