There are few things that speak to the pleasures of summer more than a ripe ear of corn ready to be devoured at an afternoon picnic – unless, perhaps, you are a small, organic farmer.
“It’s a crop that all around is an absolute crowd pleaser, but I would say it is by far the crop that we consistently fight,” said Ben Abell, who runs Rootbound Farm in Crestwood, one of the primary providers for the Fresh Stop Markets. “It’s almost impossible to grow, and it’s a bummer, because it is a crowd pleaser.”
Between growing with organic methods, tough economics, and the predators – both mammalian and insect – who love to eat it, Abell said corn faces the most pressure of any crop farmers like him grow.
“Before we even talk about bugs, there are deer that love the young corn plant, raccoons that eat the ears of corn once they’re pretty ripe – usually the night before we’re going to pick,” he said, with a laugh. “And finally, birds that attack corn and shred the ears.”
He said the modern sweet corn that people like to eat also is more susceptible to worm damage, and there are few tools organic farmers have to fight them, compared to conventional farmers.
“With GMO (genetically modified organisms) corn, the pesticides are genetically engineered to be produced by the actual corn plant,” Abell said. “The corn plants actually generate the pesticides that are toxic to the corn ear worms and European Corn Borer. They have those advantages over us on that front for sure.”
Organic farmers can use naturally occurring pesticides.
“The pesticide that most corn is genetically engineered to produce is BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is actually a bacteria,” Abell said. “That bacteria is the only real tool that organic farmers use to control ear worms. In organic farming, we are allowed to use certain pesticides as long as they are natural, are selective and naturally dissipate in the environment, and don’t harm beneficial insects. Bacterias are some of the pesticides that we use. We use BT to spray our corn, but it’s generally not overly effective, the formulations we use.”
He said the field of organic plant breeding has taken off in the past 5-6 years, giving farmers like him more tools with which to work.
“What really good plant breeding focuses on for organics is developing new corn varieties that have a lot tighter husks around the tip, and that just makes it more difficult for the worms to get in,” Abell said. “There’s little stuff like that that is done through conventional breeding techniques that don’t use GMO, that are specifically focused on organic growers.”
Those tools will help in the long run, but economic realities for small farms like Rootbound and others that grow for Fresh Stops Markets, still make corn a tough crop. Corn lends itself to being grown on a large scale because it can be harvested mechanically. On small farms, crops like corn and green beans – another crowd pleaser, Abell said – are harvested by hand.
“Everything we do is harvested by hand,” Abell said. “If we could invest in machinery, we would get a green bean picker … a smaller one that only picks one row at a time and costs $30,000. To go from hand harvesting to automation, you really do have to make a serious investment.”
Despite the difficulties, Abell said Rootbound has two crops of corn that look promising for the Markets, one during the second week of August, and another in September if all goes well.