Undressed With Farmer Tim: Sweet Corn
The hot summer days of July bring the first cobs of fresh sweet corn. Each year, farmers in Western Pennsylvania compete to see who can bring the first tender, golden ears to market. Generally, Tim King wins. Here, Farmer Tim gives us the inside scoop on one of his favorite crops.
Tell us how you grow sweet corn at Freedom Farms
We’re very proud of our corn. We know that we raise a better product than most people. We seed our first planting of sweet corn in the beginning of April. We till the ground as soon as we get the first break in the weather, and it’s dry enough to get into the fields and plant. The way that my planter works is that the planter is hooked up to a plastic layer, so we plant and lay down plastic in one go. The plastic we use is both biodegradable and photodegradable. It is eco-friendly because it breaks down both above and beneath the soil. It only lasts until the corn starts to push up against the plastic.
In June, once the corn is germinated and pushing up against the plastic, we fertilize and cultivate any weeds that are up in between the rows with a two row cultivator. Then we hook up drip irrigation and irrigate through dry spells and survey the field for any insect pressure. There are a lot of earwigs in Western PA. Crop rotation is really important. Penn State Extension really helps me out. Each year they do surveys to find out if there is high insect pressure in our area.
I’ve heard that there is a lot of competition between local farmers about who will bring the first sweet corn to market.
Oh, there is. Honestly, I have a couple friends of mine who are farmers and we will send each other pictures of our crop to see whose corn is going to tassel first. Every farmer always thinks that their corn is the best, but they’re wrong. Mine is. I’m usually first to market every year.
Run us through the process of harvesting your corn and bringing it to market.
We harvest our corn early, before the sun hits the fields. The whole point of harvesting sweet corn early in the morning is so the dew is on and the temperature is lower. You want to get the corn cooled down as fast as possible. As soon as you get that corn off the stalk, the sugar is starting to break down and turn to starch. When that happens, the corn tastes starchy and loses sweetness. The faster you can cool it down the sweeter it tastes.
We get up early in the morning and pick each ear by hand. Experience is really important. If you know what you are doing, you can sense the density of each ear by feeling it whether it’s ready or not. It takes years to develop that ability. A lot of farmers harvest mechanically. The process is non-selective. The machine goes through and picks every single ear in the field. On our farm, we pick selectively. It takes longer, but the corn tastes better and we can get a second or even a third harvest.
How long does it take you to pick corn by hand?
I can pick a sack of corn, which is five dozen, in a minute. I can pick an ear of corn in less than a second. Pete and I are the only ones who can hit that time, but John and Sam and Paul are coming really close.
How much corn do you harvest on a daily basis?
Last year we were probably averaging about 80 sacks of 500 dozen a day.
What happens after the corn is picked?
We load our corn on the truck and take it straight to our Local Market, which is a couple miles from the field. Then we ice it down to prevent sugars turning to starch. We sell it there or pack it on the truck and send it into the city to sell at the Mobile Markets.
What makes your sweet corn different from the corn I can buy at the grocery store?
I’m 100 percent sure that our corn is better than the corn you can get in a grocery store. The grocery stores only sell varieties that travel well because the stores are buying from large commercial growers. That’s how they get their products so cheap. The sweet corn has a much thicker skin on the corn kernels. It’s tougher. The corn has travelled anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks to get to the grocer and it loses sweetness during that time.
We pick our corn and we sell it on the same day. Period. If we don’t sell it we feed it to pigs, because we want our corn to be tender and sweet. Grocery stores only care that it looks pretty and is high in sugar content. Their corn isn’t tender at all. Taste our corn once – you’ll never go back.
Farmer Tim’s Undressed Sweet Corn
I like to steam sweet corn. I don’t like when people boil the sweet corn because they always boil it for too long. I steam my corn for 2 minutes then butter, salt, and pepper. But probably the best way to eat sweet corn is raw and fresh. That’s our breakfast every single morning in the summer when we harvest the corn.