Sweet corn is one of the universal tastes of the summer season. Whether you’re raising it in your garden to feed your family, generate additional income or as a thank you to landlords or helpful neighbors, sweet corn is more than just a tasty treat.
Advantages aside, there is more to raising sweet corn than meets the eye, or in this case, ear. Choosing the best variety to meet your needs along with consumer education play important roles.
Andy and Jenna LaFevor have been raising sweet corn on their family’s Tennessee Century Farm in the southern tip of Bledsoe County for the past five years, a tradition passed down to them by Jenna’s uncle, Lynn Johnson. Lynn and his wife, Sherry, first started raising sweet corn to sell for contributions to their daughter Elle’s future college fund.
When she was old enough to help, Elle began to take part, too. Today, the LaFevors carry on the tradition with their daughter, Landry.
Charlie Barker, of Dunlap, Tennessee, has raised sweet corn for decades. Much like the LaFevors, he chose to do so for “kid money.” With help from an extension vegetable specialist and a seed company representative, these Sequatchie Valley farmers offered their advice on selecting the best variety to meet your needs.
Choosing a Variety
While in the past both farm families have raised other varieties, each now raise Obsession and Temptation. These are bicolor varieties, with Obsession being an 80-day super sweet corn and Temptation, a 70-day sugar-enhanced variety. Both are popular with their customers and less labor-intensive than other varieties they have tried in the past.
Obsession, for example, has a lower stalk that is easier to pick and less likely to be blown over by the wind.
Of course, there are other equally popular varieties. Faithway Alliance works to supply Tennessee Farmers Cooperatives, including those in Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties, with feed, seed and other supplies.
Chris Bowman, a lawn and garden category lead with the company, weighs in. “More and more customers are buying Ambrosia,” he says. “It’s got a good, sweet flavor to it.”
Peaches and Cream and Silver Queen are other popular varieties for the area. All are hybrid varieties, but while Ambrosia and Peaches and Cream are bicolor, Silver Queen is a white corn. Bowman feels that these varieties are popular because of their flavor and because of long-standing area traditions that often reflect a maturity date that allows growers to process their corn before the fall season.
Regardless of the variety you ultimately choose to raise, Annette Wszelaki, professor and commercial vegetable extension specialist in the department of plant sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recommends doing your research. She feels you should ultimately base your decision on multiple factors including color of the kernels, maturity date, ease of raising, quality and storage life.
“There are great varieties of every color,” she says. “Bicolor varieties have become very popular, most likely because they are the best of both worlds.”
Further, planting varieties with varying maturity dates staggers the harvest across the season. This can also be achieved by succession planting of the same variety every two weeks. However, the Barker and LaFevor families take a slightly different approach and aim for a very targeted season.
Their goal is to have corn available for customers around the July 4th holiday, a sort of one-and-done that works well around their other farming enterprises.
A Closer Look
If you seek to choose your sweet corn variety based on factors beyond color, flavor, maturity date, etc., you’ll need to examine such considerations as whether to choose a genetically modified organism (GMO) or a non-GMO.
GMO sweet corn was created to help with weed and pest management.
“Roundup Ready varieties can be sprayed over the top with the herbicide glyphosate, which can reduce weeds in the crop,” Wszelaki says. “Similarly, choosing Bt corn varieties can reduce the number of insecticide sprays required in a given year for European corn borer and corn earworm. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a naturally occurring soil bacterium. Bt produces a very selective protein that crystallizes in the gut of those lepidopteran pests.”
The protein doesn’t harm insects in other orders and is safe for human consumption. Many Bt products are available for organic producers to use. However, Wszelaki advises that while organic producers do have several formulations of these sprays available to them for insect management, they can’t use GMOs, as the use of GMOs doesn’t comply with the USDA organic certification standards.
Sweet corn texture, sugar content and ease of growing are also dependent on their genetics. “Normal sugary varieties have the su gene,” Wszelaki says. “These varieties were the standard sweet corn for many years. Su varieties have the lowest sugar content and need to be eaten soon after harvest, preferably the same day they are harvested. As time passes, the sugar in these varieties is quickly converted into starch making them chewy and less tender, instead of creamy.”
Sugar-enhanced varieties have the se gene. “These varieties are sweeter than the su types and their sugar turns into starch more slowly, which means they will maintain their creamy texture and store for two to four days, if refrigerated,” Wszelaki says.
Peaches and Cream is one of the most famous se varieties, but there are sweeter varieties available. The super sweet varieties have the sh2 gene. These varieties are two to three times sweeter than su and se and have a slow sugar-to-starch conversion rate so that corn, if stored properly, will remain sweet for up to 10 days after harvest. “However, sh2 types can be less tender, crispier to eat and harder to grow than other types,” Wszelaki says.
Synergistic varieties also exist that combine the genetics of su, se and sh2 genotypes. These varieties are high in sugar levels, store well and have a creamy texture.
Wszelaki advises that when growing different varieties, producers should isolate those with different genotypes from one another. Otherwise, they can cross-pollinate, and the quality of corn will be diminished.
“It’s recommended to isolate sh2 types from su and se types by a distance of at least 300 feet or a space in silking date of at least 12 days to prevent cross-pollination,” she says. “Regardless of what you eventually choose, one of your top considerations is going to be a variety that tastes great and keeps your customers coming back.”
Delving deeper still, growers of certified organic corn cannot use GMO varieties and must also meet other specific criteria. “Corn must be grown on a field where no prohibited substances (i.e., synthetic fertilizers/pesticides) have been applied for at least three years and growers need to go through a certification process,” Wszelaki says.
To prevent cross-pollination, producers growing both organic and nonorganic corn would also need to raise these varieties at least 300 feet apart. While there are workarounds, fertilizer, insect and weed control are all areas in which an organic producer may struggle. It’s important to understand that while organic corn can bring a higher premium in the market the corn is often not as pristine looking as conventional corn due to high insect pressure.
Bowman further advises that to meet certified organic standards, certified organic seed must be used. While the farmer’s cooperatives he serves don’t sell certified organic seed in large quantities, this type of seed is offered in small packages off the rack. Some growers, he said, choose to forego the certified organic route and instead simply choose to raise corn as close to organic standards as possible. These producers don’t advertise as certified organic but rather make choices in the raising of the corn that aligns as closely as possible with organic values.
Regardless of the corn variety you eventually choose to raise, chances are good that outside of feeding your family you may choose to sell or give some of it away. Variety notwithstanding, Andy LaFevor says that consumers should look for corn that has a really green husk and that the ear should “fill up your hand” when you hold it. Questions of quality can also be addressed by shucking an ear open to make sure it is pollinated to the top with full kernels.
Barker further advises checking for mature, good-sized ears.
In the end, raising sweet corn can be a fulfilling endeavor. From growing a product that can teach your children such valuable life skills as counting money, self-confidence, customer service, advertising skills and more to the ability to eat and provide others with a tasty treat, raising sweet corn truly offers all of these and more.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.