Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Look Back on the Season

2012 Cucumber Crop Worst in Years
This past summer was not the season for cucumbers in the Knoxville area. I was overheard last week at the Farmers Market, bemoaning the absence of good cucumbers even in that venue. A lady in line near me turned and said she had had the same problem. Two attempts on our part yielded plants that quickly succumbed to cucumber mosaic virus. Ironically, a plant that came up volunteer in an area we’d amended with compost actually produced a few small cucumbers before it, too, became infected. Heat and humidity at the wrong times probably contributed to the crop failure.  We originally thought perhaps our choice of new varieties to try, ‘Picklebush’ and ‘Boston Pickling’ may have been the issue. But this would not explain the widespread nature of the cucumber shortage.
I have not had the opportunity to discuss this issue with locals who farm for a living. Whatever the reason, we’ll have no homemade pickles this year.
Rare Sweet Corn
Corn on the cob is one of the true pleasures of summer, but finding the genuine article locally has become increasingly difficult as the years roll by. Only a few of the 30 or more vendors at the FARM Farmer’s Market this year have offered corn. One of these was selling corn exclusively for a few weeks, then was seen no more. The only variety I saw offered that was not a sugar-enhanced type was ‘Silver Queen,’ the old standby for a white sweet corn around these parts. Unfortunately, the ears I purchased were picked a bit too late, and the flavor was not as good as it might have been.
All the other varieties we observed on offer were recently developed, high-fructose hybrids like ‘Ambrosia,’ ‘Peaches and Cream,’ and ‘Awesome.’ With all due respect to the plant breeders who have created these types of corn, they are almost too sweet for me. The original idea of sugar-enhanced corn was to increase the shelf life. As soon as it is picked, corn begins converting sugar to starch, so the fresher the ear the sweeter. Hence the old adage about bringing the water to a boil before going out to pick the corn.  Ordinary sweet corn varieties, like ‘IA Chief’ and ‘Golden Bantam’ were great eating, as long as you grew them yourself. If you wanted corn out of season, from someplace like, say, California, it just did not taste as good after its long journey, despite refrigeration. The answer, someone realized, was to grow sweeter corn that would remain sweet longer because it would take more time for enzymes in the ear to convert the sugar to starch.
Ironically, consumers have come to expect the farmer’s market to offer the same type of corn as the supermarket. Yellow and white varieties, like the so, so sweet ‘Honey and Pearl,’ tend to dominate because of their attractive appearance. But all of these lack the genuine, “corny” flavor of the heirlooms, and I wish local farmers would learn to grow them again. Offering ‘Silver Queen’ was a great idea, but you gotta know when to pick it. Burpee's seed catalog offers only three "normal sugar" corn varieties, 'Silver Queen,' 'Golden Bantam,' and 'Early Sunglow.' By contrast they have 10 "sugar enhanced" and 4 "super sweet" cultivars available. Locally, Mayo Seed offers some additional heirlooms, like 'IA Chief.'
We consumers should be dedicated to supporting local farmers who grow good sweet corn, regardless of the variety they offer. Few crops are less well suited to small scale production that corn. If you grow the modern hybrids, seed is expensive and it is often difficult to find seed not treated with chemical pesticides. (Burpee offers only one organically grown corn variety, 'Golden Bantam.') Further, corn is demanding in terms of both soil fertility and sunshine, and needs a lot of water to boot. Each plant will take up about 3 square feet of growing space, making it difficult for many home gardeners to squeeze in a patch. And for all its demands, corn rarely produces more than two ears per stalk. Given that the typical price at the FARM Farmer’s Market is $5 a dozen, it is easy to see why so few growers bother.
So if you are a local vegetable grower and you are reading this, I’ll make you an offer. Grow an heirloom sweet corn next year, pick it at the proper time, and bring it to market.  Let me know ahead of time, and I will do everything I can to encourage consumers to patronize your stand. And we locavores should be willing to pay a dollar an ear for the privilege.

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