Sweet Corn Growers Tackle Regulatory And Weather Challenges

Eric Natwick

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In spite of the weather-related issues that plagued growers across the country in 2012, it wasn’t a bad year for sweet corn growers in the Carolinas. Jonathan Schultheis, a professor and Extension leader in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University, says it was a good year, thanks to ample rainfall.

In 2013, Schultheis expects growers to have another good year. One reason, he says, is because they now have access to varieties with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) resistance. Growers who plant earlier in the year don’t have nearly as much insect pressure as they do later in the season, he begins. “So, they can plant non-Bt resistant varieties in the spring and ones with Bt resistance later in the season. They aren’t able to completely eliminate the use of insecticides, but they can reduce the number of applications,” he adds.

Sweet corn growers on the West Coast didn’t face any major problems, either. Eric Natwick, an entomology advisor at the University of California-Davis, says 2012 was a “normal” year, without any major pest disruptions. One pest challenge, however, is with corn earworm. Growers deal with this pest annually, he says.

Food Safety And Labor
As with virtually all growers, food safety regulations and labor continue to be a challenge. As a result, Schultheis says some mid-sized growers may choose to stop producing sweet corn entirely and switch to soybeans and other row crops. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, he says some of the large sweet corn growers he has talked to plan to do what it takes to stay in business.

In the area of labor, Schultheis asked growers why they resist using machine harvest. The reason, he says, is because machines can’t determine a good ear from a not-so-good ear.

“When you have people harvesting sweet corn, they are trained to pick just the marketable ears,” he explains. “So if you use a harvester for all the sweet corn, it now has to be sorted through and checked for quality at the packing shed — which is time consuming.

“Most large growers in the Carolinas are doing all hand harvest and in some cases they are having trouble getting people to come pick the corn,” he continues. “I know the immigration issue is sticky, but it is one that needs to be figured out — soon.”

In the end, Schultheis predicts there may be a reduction in sweet corn acreage as there may be better pricing and less risk growing other agronomic crops. “More stringent food safety regulations may be implemented by various buyers and more government regulation may reduce sweet corn production in 2013 versus 2012.”