As hotter weather settles upon North Carolina, berry season wraps up and shifts towards summer crops like organic, heirloom tomatoes and organic sweet corn. Along with the hot summer weather comes a range of potential issues for organic farmers, most notably summer pests.
Though relatively easy to grow, sweet corn, most especially organic sweet corn, does require some special attention to ensure a successful harvest for the farmer and a delicious outcome for consumers. Read on to learn more about the history and organic farming methods of North Carolina’s golden crop.
Domestication of Sweet Corn
Maize, or corn, was first domesticated by indigenous people in southwestern Mexico approximately 8,700 years ago. As seeds were dispersed and more learned to cultivate it, corn became a staple, both culturally and culinarily.
Many varieties of corn have developed from its originally domesticated form. The major difference in varieties has to do with the development of starches within the kernels. Sweet corn as it’s known today originated from a genetic mutation – one that prevented the conversion of sugar into starch and resulted in a sweet and delicious variety.
Production of Organic Sweet Corn
Generally, corn is an extremely tolerant crop. It loves warm weather, which makes it an excellent option for North Carolina farmers. However, particular planning and methodology are critical for a successful organic sweet corn season.
Planting and Pollination of organic sweet corn
Organic sweet corn season in North Carolina moves east to west, from the coast to the mountains. Initial planting occurs in late March and early April, and first harvest from eastern NC most often occurs in mid-June. Planting is generally done in successions – a crucial step in organic growing for helping prevent an incredibly damaging pest, the corn earworm.
The corn earworm can affect the plants ability to pollinate as well as infest late-development corn. Corn pollination occurs when wind carries pollen from the male part of the plant (tassels) and it lands on the female part of the plant (silks). Organic farmer Herbie Cottle describes the process:
“The pollen comes off [the tassels] and falls on the silk. Each one of the silks is a kernel on the ear of corn. So if the pollen doesn’t fall on it, then there won’t be any corn.”
If present, corn earworm larvae initially feed on silks, which can interfere with pollination and affect yield. Cottle explains, “that’s where the butterfly lays the egg, on the silk. Then when the worm hatches, it starts eating the silk . . .” Eventually, the larvae gain access to the kernels, and can make their way through the length of an ear by the time their development is complete.
Corn Earworm Prevention
An infestation of corn earworm can ruin an entire crop. Prevention of this costly pest can be tricky, especially for certified organic growers. However, earworm management is easier than it was a few years ago, as Cottle recalls:
“A few years back, we didn’t have a lot of products to help us with worms. As the years have passed, they have more organic products that we can use to control worms.”
Corn earworm survival is more likely during hotter months and the later stages of corn development, so early succession planting is key to pest management. Succession planting allows farmers to harvest before a larval infestation is likely to occur, and have multiple harvests, extending availability.
Without the use of synthetic pesticides, organic farmers must use a rotation of organic pest control products – Cottle notes that “if you use just one, the worms become immune.” Additionally, farmers employ a carefully crafted planting and harvesting cycle that helps them stay ahead of any potential corn earworm problems.
Choosing to Grow Organic
While sweet corn production could be made easier with conventional methods, it can be ecologically damaging. Organic farming practices can encourage soil health and support local ecosystems, and our organic farmers are integral in helping to maintain a robust local food system.
Cottle spoke with our team about his transition into the organic farming industry in 2007, noting that he didn’t know much about it, but wanted to give it a try. While he does cite the cost of growing and purchasing organic as a barrier to entry, Cottle doesn’t regret his choice to pivot to a different way of growing, even though there were doubts initially.
“People were kind of looking at me like it was a fad and that it wasn’t going to last. They soon found out differently. Even my father-in-law was like “There ain’t no way people are going to grow organic produce. It’s high. It’s expensive. It’s just a fad. It’s going to change.”
As the organic produce industry has continued to grow since Cottle’s entry into the industry, he tells us about the shift in his father-in-law’s thinking with an impish smile:
“Now he says,”I guess you were right.”