Our Vegetable Nemesis… (Or: why we are giving up on sweet corn!)

When folks ask what we grow, we say, “Pretty much everything that can grow in upstate NY!” That encompasses more than 60 unique crops, 15 types of UPick herbs, and about 25 varieties (and growing) of flowers. All told, we generally plant 300 different cultivars, which seems totally manageable at this time of the year, where they are all lined up in their neat spreadsheet columns, but rapidly becomes insane when we start the serious planting of May.

Every one of those varieties has a slightly different treatment, ranging from how big of pots it goes in (1/2”, 1”, 3”, or more), to how many days it grows in the greenhouse (14 to 84), to what soil temperature it germinates at, to how much weekly water it needs, how much added compost fertility, trellising, covers, mulch, weeding, and blah, blah, blah… You get the picture, there is an infinite permutation of yearly variables!

And for the most part, we are pretty good at balancing these variables. Sure, each year a few things get missed and a couple crops fail, but with 60 vegetables and 40 more herbs and flowers, there is generally still an overflowing bounty from the fields to fill the CSA boxes and market stand.

This general bounty means that we feel a little less guilty that after five years of trying here, we are throwing in one towel on growing the one crop that has become our full-time vegetable nemesis: SWEET CORN. We love to eat sweet corn as much as anyone, but we’ve grown to hate growing sweet corn with a deep and unrelenting passion.

Sweet corn is tempting and delectable nemesis. Each winter, it parades across pages of glossy seed catalogs in all its multicolored vegetative sexiness. Each winter, it seduces us to try again—for maybe this year will be THE year, when miracles happen and we get a bumper crop of shiny, gem-like sweetness. But this year, we steeled ourselves, glued those catalog pages together to remove any temptation, and stand resolute that we will help you all find other farms for whom sweet corn is a less temperamental mistress.

Up in Fenner, there aren’t a lot of vegetable growers, so we had high hopes for low numbers of surrounding native pest loads when we started our farm.

Unfortunately, we didn’t entirely account for the more generalist pests that survive on wild native plants (like the aster leafhopper that lives on every roadside chicory and vectors aster yellows to our poor head lettuce in July), the ravening hordes of brassica flea beetles that thrive on the weeds that blanket the soil under the neighboring organic farms’ grain and corn crops (those little buggers are responsible for our miles of undulating white row covers), or in this case, the wide range of disgusting little corn worm species that find our organic sweet corn seed, stalks, and ears so much more fabulous than that bland old field corn that surrounds us.

Our first year we did a corn trial and grew some tasty, shiny corn in a few beds. Since then, we’ve battled with seed corn worms that eat all the seeds right at planting, army worms that eat all the insides out of the stalks before they grow ears, and some superlatively nasty ear worms that I don’t even want to think about let alone describe them to you in case the image fuels your summer nightmares. To add insult to injury, our average cost of production per bed on the farm is $800, but sweet corn with a perfect yield at $.50/ear grosses only $400 per bed, which means we need to PAY $400 per bed to grow corn (or $800 per bed for all those years we planted and yielded nothing!).

So we are bidding our tempting sweet corn mistress a permanent good-bye., We hope our farm neighbors who have the equipment, the soil, and most importantly, the lower pest loads to grow sweet corn not at a loss, have fun with our nemesis—may she not treat them as fickle-y as she did us!

Where can you get sweet corn this summer then? There’s tons of good corn at the Cazenovia farmers market, including some grown with organic methods, as well as at the farm stands in the area. There are also a number of field crop farmers that run a few passes of sweet corn through their planters and you can see their little corn sheds fill up with it on most roads up to our farm. And who knows, maybe some year we will lose the battle with temptation and try to get back in the game… but until then, we are bidding our nemesis a strong good-bye!