Will sweet corn bounty last till State Fair?

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2012 - 2:32 PM

Fair officials are optimistic, but ag officials say supply might be tight toward the end of the month.

Roasted corn on the cob is among the more popular foods at the State Fair.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune file

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During our year of weather weirdness, the stalks were head-high on the 4th of July near Waconia. Soon afterward, sweet corn lovers started enjoying one of the earliest huskin' seasons in recent memory.

But -- there always seems to be a "but" when such a wondrous happenstance unfolds -- an early start might mean an early finish, especially with continuing hot weather.

"Availability might be tight in late August," said Jeff Coulter, corn agronomist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

That would be late August, as in State Fair time.

And since sweet corn can't really be stored for long -- as soon as it is picked, the sugar starts turning into starch -- a fresh crop is essential.

"I try not to worry too much until the end," said Brad Ribar, the fair's sole sweet corn vendor. "You can figure out all your backup plans, but you don't know where the crops are going to be at fair time."

The good news: There's a lot of it right now. Most of Minnesota has avoided the major drought that has ravaged corn crops through much of the Midwest. The recent cooler nights slowed the breakneck maturation pace. And most corn farmers do succession plantings; when those Waconia cornfields were more than knee-high on July 4th, farmers there and elsewhere probably were sowing their last seeds.

The better news: While the overwhelming majority of corn goes to livestock feed, ethanol, exports and high-fructose corn syrup, Minnesota is the nation's largest producer of sweet corn. (It's called giving the people what they want. Oh, and having Green Giant here.)

The best news: This year's crop is high in quality as well as quantity. "Looks like it's going to be a really good season," said Liz McMann, consumer affairs manager for the Mississippi Market co-ops in St. Paul. "The ears are just a touch smaller than last year, we suspect because of the weather. And it has been the same price as last year."

A field day for farmers

Weather has plagued much of the Corn Belt, but conditions here, even the unusual ones, have been mostly beneficial. "We had a lot of very, very early rains," said Jerry Untiedt, owner of Untiedt's Vegetable Farm in Waverly, Minn., "that compacted the ground and washed out the low areas. What grew was extremely vigorous and obviously had some very wonderful weather to mature in. The quality is excellent."

That's apparently the case with all of Minnesota's corn. "In general, Minnesota is faring better than others," said Tim Gerlach, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. "The predictions would suggest that field corn might be better than last year."

And there will be more of it than ever, perhaps 1.4 billion bushels, Gerlach said. Last year, Minnesota's crop of 1.2 million bushels was bested by only three other states.

But only about 2 percent of the crop is the sweet stuff, just 130,000 acres of the state's 8.7 million acres planted in corn, sometimes in surprising places. "All of our [field corn] farmers probably have a garden or might plant an acre or two of sweet corn," Gerlach said.

For years now, Ribar has been getting his corn from Untiedt, who's fairly certain that supplying the 200,000 or so ears that Minnesota fairgoers consume is doable.

"You should ask him if he has the political clout to get the fair moved up two weeks," Untiedt suggested. "Actually, I think he'll be OK. We've been doing this for a good while, you know."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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