The king of crops

Corn has a sweet side that transcends its reputation

All hail.

All hail.

We render it into syrup, starch and fuel. We feed it to animals. We grow more of it than almost any other grain in the world. And, for its infamous roles in soil depletion, dietary simplification, malnutrition and obesity, corn has gained a dirty reputation.

Yet this king of crops still has its place in the arena of seasonal summer produce. In the alluvial soils adjacent to the Sacramento River, for instance, sweet corn is maturing in stages across John Perry’s 80 acres, which he has been planting every-other day since early April—a timing technique that allows continual, almost daily harvest of the crop once it begins to mature.

Standing on a levee adjacent to the property, one can see the staggered maturation of Perry’s fields; some portions are still bare and won’t be planted until August, others are grown over by lush rows of 5- to 6-foot-tall corn stalks, bearing collectively up to 20,000 ears per acre.

Still other sweeps of the fields have been freshly harvested. This year, the first rows were ready in late June, and the harvest may run through November, says Perry, who sells his corn at the Saturday Davis Farmers Market, at each major farmers’ market in Sacramento and seven days per week at his roadside stand on El Centro Road off of Interstate 80.

Perry grows two “sugar-enhanced” breeds: Vision and 175A, a newly developed cultivar that may receive a prettier name if it proves a successful moneymaker. The varieties, each yellow, are hybrids whose seeds, if saved and planted, will revert to the parent plant, Perry explains, requiring that he return to the sellers each year to buy the seeds of next year’s harvest.

Sometimes favored varieties disappear from the catalogs. Perry recalls the Sweetie 82, the best corn he ever grew and that made up the bulk of his production through the 1990s. Sweetie 82’s husk, however, was a dull yellow—not a lavish, attractive green—and Sweetie’s seed suppliers sacked the breed early last decade. Though small nurseries still carry this corn, for Perry, life moved on.

But Perry assures that Sweetie’s replacements are as sweet as their well-remembered predecessor. He also swears his corn is sweeter than that of his competitors. That’s mostly due to good genes but also due to the location of Perry’s farm; he is just 3 miles north of downtown Sacramento, a geographical advantage that allows him to harvest in the morning and still make it in time to the day’s markets.

“Others may be coming from Fresno, and they might have picked their corn two or three days before,” says Perry, whose family has owned the property since the 1930s.

Perry concedes that modern varieties of corn tend to be durable and able to withstand up to a week of storage before they begin to wilt and lose their sweetness. Still, fresher is better, he says. Mario Busalacchi agrees. His family has farmed in Stockton for more than 100 years, and today the farm grows 40 acres of sweet corn among more than 1,100 acres of onions and tomatoes. Busalacchi usually harvests the day before selling—still plenty fresh to provide a high-quality, supersweet cob of corn, he says.

Neither Perry nor Busalacchi farm organically. Perry says organic corn will often have a worm burrowed into every ear, and Busalacchi, a man of math, economics and no nonsense, says that yields and profits don’t add up when cornfields are subjected to life without chemical protection. “We farm to feed people,” he says. “We don’t farm for bullshit.”

Perry’s corn runs four cobs for $1.50 with a slightly sweeter deal for a baker’s dozen. Busalacchi, who sells at the same markets, offers his corn at 3 for $1—just slightly cheaper—but the question remains: Whose corn is sweeter?