September 8, 2013

Local sweet corn is hard to beat

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

— It’s the time of year when most gardeners are sharing an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash. It’s also sweet corn season. And who doesn’t enjoy fresh-picked sweet corn on the cob? The fresher it is, the better it tastes. I know gardeners who start boiling the water before they pick the corn.

I find it exciting to stop at a farmstand to buy a dozen ears that I know were growing earlier that day. Sweet corn is a tasty treat and an incredible value. One medium-size ear has about 75 calories and just 1 gram of fat. Corn is a good source of carbohydrates, food energy, vitamin A, minerals, protein and dietary fiber.

Most growers plant several varieties with each requiring a different number of days to mature or plant it over several weeks rather than all at once to extend the harvest.

I look for husks that are firm, fresh and green and tassels that are pale, silky and showing just a little brown. If the ears are cool to the touch, the corn is most likely fresh. A few worms in the silk are not necessarily a turn off, either. As my mom used to say, “They know which ears are the sweetest.”

Cooked sweet corn can be added to cornbread and corn muffins for flavor and texture. And the kernels can be creamed or used in relishes, soups and chowders, fritters, succotash and pudding. Corn can also be fermented to make bourbon whiskey.

Corn is the largest and perhaps the single most important crop in the United States. Worldwide, it is second only to rice. American farmers plant more than 95 million acres and harvest well over 10 billion bushels of corn annually. People consume only a small percentage.

Nearly two thirds is used for feeding animals. Some is dried and ground into meal. Even more is processed to make cornstarch, corn oil and corn sweeteners such as syrup, dextrose and fructose, commonly used in the production of jams and jellies, condiments, candies, beverages and other value-added products. About one quarter of the harvest is exported.

Non-food by-products include paints, dyes and an elastic gum used in place of rubber. Corn cellulose is used in pressboard, insulating materials, windshield washer fluid, calcium magnesium acetate road deicer and other biodegradable products. Corn is also used in making ethanol.

Most people don’t realize corn is a member of the grass family and doesn’t exist in the wild. It was created and has been perpetuated and improved for centuries. In fact, corn could be mankind’s single most domesticated field crop.

Although there is debate, it is generally accepted that corn as we know it today would not exist had it not been for ancient Native American horticulturists. Farmer-scientists of Mayan, Aztec, Incan or another lesser-known Central or South American civilization using determined cultivation techniques purposefully invented, developed and produced corn from a wild grass called teosinte.

Between 5000 and 8000 BC, these ingenious agriculturalists were able to transform teosinte from a grass that produced only a few small seeds into plants that formed small, husk-covered ears with rows of large kernels. In order to increase yields, they worked methodically to increase the size and length of those ears.

Eventually, aboriginal civilizations across the American continent came to plant, grow and process corn, or maize. They used dried, mature kernels to make flour and popcorn. The kernels that did not fully mature were eaten fresh. They may have also chewed the leaves for both the flavor and the sugar.

When he returned to Europe from what he believed was the West Indies, Christopher Columbus brought corn with him as a gift for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. It wasn’t long before Europe was introduced to the new grain.

While they were learning about beans, squash, melons, tobacco and other indigenous American crops, European colonists took up Native American maize agriculture as their own.

Modern hybrid sweet corn is the result of centuries of experimentation. Every variety of hybrid seed is the result of a controlled crossing of two specially developed parent varieties. Scientists continue to work to develop superior varieties that provide more stable yearly production, greater uniformity in maturity, resistance to lodging, insects, disease and herbicide, and that make more efficient use of applied fertilizer.

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email