Sweet corn is part of a winning combination for Clayton Voss.
The 28-year-old Pasco farmer has double-cropped sweet corn with green peas for five to six seasons. Even though he grows about a half-dozen other crops, those two alone provide more than half of his farm’s income.
“It’s a massive amount of work, but it pays off,” he said.
Washington isn’t a part of the Midwest’s Corn Belt, but the state ranks first in the nation when it comes to sweet corn production — the source of ears of corn we grill at summer barbecues and add to soups to warm us in the winter. Minnesota farmers plant more acres of sweet corn, but in 2011 Washington produced more tons per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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But corn’s value as a food isn’t the only reason it’s grown in the Mid-Columbia. Growers said the crop is important for its role in farm management, maintaining soil health and making sure growers can produce a variety of crops through the years.
Seven counties in central and southeastern Washington are home to the bulk of the state’s sweet corn production, with Benton and Franklin counties in the top three.
Sweet corn contains more moisture than field corn and is eaten fresh or processed in products such as canned corn, said Tim Waters, vegetable specialist with Washington State University Extension in Franklin County. Field corn is used to produce drier foods, such as cornmeal, but also for cattle feed and ethanol.
A lot of that corn is processed in the Mid-Columbia by Twin City Foods and Pasco Processing in Pasco. And a Toppenish facility belonging to Del Monte Foods in the Yakima Valley works with seven corn growers in Benton County.
Scott Knight has almost 1,000 acres of field and seed corn and has grown sweet corn in the past. Corn is physiologically different from the other crops he grows, including wheat, alfalfa and timothy hay, and isn’t affected by the same pests and diseases, he said.
Planting it for one or two years provides time for those problems to work their way out of the soil, improving future yields.
“It breaks up the chemistry of the ground,” Knight said.
Voss, who grows about 1,000 acres of sweet corn northeast of Pasco each year, said that good crop rotation is important but that his dedication to growing sweet corn is also business-wise.
By double-cropping with green peas, which he harvests in the spring, he can plant sweet corn and have another crop out of the same ground by the end of the summer. That sweet corn ends up at Twin City Foods in Pasco, where it’s processed into frozen products.
How a crop of sweet corn will end up depends on when it was planted. Knight and Voss said planting earlier in the season when temperatures are cool usually results in low yields because corn needs heat to fully develop. Later plantings are usually better because of the later heat.
Corn prices, particularly those for field corn, were up in 2012 because of the drought affecting the Midwest, where much of the nation’s field corn is grown. Whole fields were abandoned when summer rains failed to arrive, leaving crops to wither.
National corn production was down in 2012 about 13 percent compared with 2011, the lowest level since 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal. National corn prices were at $7.54 per bushel during September 2012, more than a dollar higher than the same time in 2011. “They’ve been the best they’ve ever been,” Knight said.
Corinne Nosal, spokeswoman for Del Monte Foods, said the drought will lead to some cost-saving measures because of the tight supply this year on corn, as well as peas, but that it isn’t a new phenomenon to the company.
Waters said increased corn prices won’t necessarily lead to a boon for growers, as higher prices for 2012’s crop will likely mean higher seed and fertilizer prices for this season’s crop.
But Voss said he still plans to keep planting sweet corn after his green peas are harvested. It has worked in the past, and he doesn’t plan on messing with success.