To corn, or not to corn?

Warning: This post is long and has no pictures.  It’s probably no fun at all.

Our sweet corn has come and gone.  That’s right – within a 5 day span, we started harvesting, finished harvesting, and mowed it down.  “WHAT!?”  You may ask, “LUDICROUS!” you may rave. How, you’re wondering, did you not even get to taste it?  Well, to find out, you first have to waddle through some of my rantings.

Disclaimer: I do not have an especially positive relationship with corn.  Scratch that, I have an extremely negative relationship with corn.  In fact, I pretty much LOATHE corn.  So, read on with that in mind, and accept that I am very biased.

Before you judge me for being all un-American and such, let me explain.  My negative relationship with corn started my first years of farming in 2008, but it is not just farming that elicits anger and perspiration when the topic of corn gets mentioned.  There are many, many other factors by which I determine what I like, and corn fails on all fronts.

For starters, I tend to judge my favorite vegetables/meats/what have you by their nutrient content.  Eating kale and broccoli and brussel sprouts and swiss chard and liver make me feel like I’m getting an IV drip of nutrients.  For some reason, this makes them taste worlds better, and it’s the large part of the reason they are some of my main staples.  Sweet corn falls flat.  Any nutrients you get (not much) come heavily laden with carbs and sugar.  Obviously I don’t judge all my food products by this standard, as ice cream and cookies are delicious (and sweet corn arguable has more nutrients than this), but it doesn’t fit into the category of “supernutrients” that I try to make my staple.

Okay, nutrient-content aside, sweet corn is freaking delicious – I’m aware.  However, as a farmer I’m spoiled.  If it hasn’t been pulled off the stalk within minutes and eaten fresh, it’s just not worth it for me.  This year when we scavenged what we could of our crop, I ate my fair share of seconds raw as we attempted to find ears that hadn’t already been demolished by sparrows or raccoons.  They were DELICIOUS.  However, after about four, I was done, and you could not pay me to eat what they sell at grocery stores.  Corn is one of those things (everything, in my opinion) where freshness really makes it or breaks it, and there’s just no way that corn can be as fresh as I like it in a store.

Thirdly, the availability of organic corn in supermarkets is sparse.  Especially with the proliferation of GMO corn and unavoidable cross-pollination in densely farmed areas, I think you’d be hard pressed to find much corn that is completely, 100% organic (not organically certified, which speaks to a whole other blog post, but completely organic).  I think we at Belmont Acres Farm probably have the closest there is as we are so far removed from any other farms that cross-pollination with GMO corn is highly unlikely.  Now, I know there is little published scientific evidence that GMOs are bad for you, but I refuse to let my body be used as a guinea pig when they haven’t been around long enough to correlate long term impacts.  I’ve done my fair share of research and I’m convinced that I don’t want to be consuming any GMOs, so from that standpoint, corn is just too risky for me.  Not worth it.

But in reality, the main reason I absolutely detest corn is farming related.  Corn is obnoxious.  Seriously.  It’s like that horrible relationship you have where you keep coming back to it year after year, because even though it failed the last time, you’re stuck on the potential of it.  You’re convinced things will be better this time, that things will change, that all of your efforts and labors of love will be reciprocated in the end, and that it won’t follow the usual pattern of devastation, and you try again, and again, and again, despite knowing better, in the hopes that THIS time, THIS year, THIS season will be better.  It never is.  Wake up.  It’s ALWAYS going to suck.

Why is that, you might ask?

For starters, corn is economically inefficient to grow.  Each stalk produces one ear of corn deemed “firsts” in that it’s a larger ear, and one smaller, secondary growth.  In a 100 ft row of corn, say at foot spacing in between stalks you have 100 stalks.  In perfect conditions, this means 100 “firsts” and 100 “seconds.”  Going rate at the farmer’s market last year was 60 cents an ear for firsts.  We sold at 75 cents an ear this year in the hopes of recouping some of the losses from our crop.  So, even if you say that you earn 75 cents for every first and 50 cents for every second (overestimate) we’re talking 75 dollars for the firsts from the 100 ft row and 50 dollars for the second.  125 dollars per row.  In about 20 ft less row space from our row of peter Wilcox purple potatoes we got 70 lbs of potatoes, valued at 3.50 per pound, or 245 dollars.  Corn is in the ground for about 70 days (variety depending).  That’s just over 2 months for one harvest.  Compare to beans that start producing after 50ish days and continue to produce for several harvests (last year we had one variety of string beans that continuously produced most of the season).  Corn is also a super heavy nutrient feeder, needing the best soil and heavy compost, and is very susceptible to weather variations.  This year the heat spell and subsequent lack of water lead to undeveloped, small ears.  Most were not sellable as firsts.

This economic return does not take into account losses, and this is where my big beef with corn comes from.   Yes, corn’s delicious, but humans are not the only ones who think so, so every year we have to share our crop with worms, sparrows, and raccoons.  Last year, Farmer Mike spent several hours dropping oil onto each ear in an attempt to suffocate the worms.  He deemed it relatively ineffective, so we did not carry on this practice this year.  We toyed around in the off season with the idea of making “corn-socks,” or stitching socks out of old pieces of agricultural fabric to cover each individual ear.  Obviously this was not deemed an efficient or practical use of time, so the ears were left exposed.

So this year, we sat waiting – waiting for the heat to let up and for rain to fall, waiting for the first ear in order to pounce and harvest as much as possible, waiting to appease the demands of hungry Belmontians.  The weekend before harvest, we were instructed to “keep an eye on the corn.”  On the Tuesday before Harvest (it was getting close!), Mike noticed the last 10 ft of the rows had been ravaged by raccoons and we moved our electric fencing to the outer periphery in an attempt to thwart them.  By Thursday, the field had been devastated – DEVASTATED – by sparrows.  Sparrows are the worst.  Not only do we have a ridiculous population due to our proximity to suburban sprawl and, obviously, prolific seed bank, but these suckers are the most wasteful birds imaginable.  They literally taste test EVERY.SINGLE.EAR. until they determine that all are palatable.  We grabbed what we could, culled through the rest to sell for seconds, and still came up with just over 3 bushels of acceptable, sellable corn.  I would estimate 40-60 ears in a bushel.  At 75 cents a piece, that’s a high estimate of roughly 160 dollars from roughly 500 square feet of planting over the course of 3 months (including prepping time).  That’s not factoring in labor costs of planting, the man hours of weeding, the resources of compost put into it, seed costs, or rent on the property.

THIS is why I hate corn – because every year I’ve learned to hope for the best and expect the worst, and every year the worst happens.  The reality is that in a five-acre suburban plot there is no way you could grow enough corn, in enough succession planting, to have an ample supply year round, or even enough for a few weeks of stand days.  As we were scavenging what little we had left on Friday morning I believe my exact words to mike were “I’m going to throw up.”  It is heart wrenching to put your blood, sweat, and tears into something and get so little in return.

So for this reason, please excuse us if we are ever surly or negative or off-putting in our response when you ask us if we have corn.  We surely don’t mean to be, and don’t mean to make you feel guilty for seeking out corn (I know, I know, it’s delicious, I covered that), it’s just that after so many years of heartbreak, its hard to respond positively – to say “Maybe next year will be better” when we know the likelihood of that is nil, and that getting our hopes up will lead to even more heartbreak.

So, what do we do next year?  I’m leaving this open to discussion in the comments section, and would love to have your opinions.  Do you think we should try corn again next year?  And take into account, would you make a decision that is completely and utterly economically unsound?

To corn, or not to corn?