As a kid, corn was a big part of my world. We grew field corn and sweet corn and my dad sold Pioneer seed corn. I even had corn pajamas and my favorite book was What Now, Kirby Kernel? Yes, the main character was a kernel of corn. No wonder I grew up to be infatuated with plants and agriculture.
Most of our farm’s income was from field corn and soybeans, but we grew and sold sweet corn too. That profit, however, did not go to the farm. My brothers and I were the CEO’s of the sweet corn operation. We picked it and sold it in front of the house, and the income was our fun money at the Iowa State Fair. The profits were not high, though. We sold it for $1/baker’s dozen.
Many Iowans can recall a similar story. Even those not from a farm have some childhood memory of sweet corn. They remember buying it out of the back of a pick-up truck, helping their parents shuck it, and, of course, eating it while butter and corn juice ran down their face.
As a young adult, I lived in many places before settling back in Iowa. Corn was a frequent topic of discussion with my east-coast, southern, and even urban Midwest friends. As soon as they found out I was from Iowa, most would mention their love of sweet corn. My friends thought the fields they’ve seen in movies, pictures or while driving along I-80 were filled with sweet corn. I quickly explained the difference between field corn and sweet corn and pointed out the many uses of the corn grown throughout Iowa. They were surprised and fascinated by its many uses. Without it, they wouldn’t have hamburgers, eggs, and bacon (livestock feed), fuel for their cars (ethanol), Doritos, or frozen pizza. Frozen pizza? Corn starch keeps the crust from getting soggy.
Although Iowa farmers do raise some of the best-tasting sweet corn in the country, less than 1% of the corn in our state is sweet corn. Iowa reigns queen in field corn production, but Minnesota, California, and Florida are the royal court in the sweet corn world. Iowa doesn’t even make the top 20 list.
Most of the sweet corn grown in Iowa is sold fresh within the state at farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and road-side stands. The fresh, frozen, and canned corn we eat the rest of the year comes from other states. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Pacific Northwest states are home to many major vegetable processors. These companies contract farmers in their areas to grow the corn we buy frozen or canned. Most fresh sweet corn sold in grocery stores from January to June is grown warmer states like Florida, California, and Georgia because of their long-growing season. Farmers in northeast states like New York and Pennsylvania grow the bulk of the fresh corn sold across the country in the summer and fall.
Although one is considered a vegetable and the other a grain, sweet corn and field corn are close relatives. Sweet corn is a naturally occurring genetic mutation of field corn. It was reportedly first grown in Pennsylvania in the mid 1700’s and introduced as a commercial variety in 1779. The main difference between the two lies with the plants’ conversion of sugar to starch. Sweet corn matures faster and is harvested earlier, while the kernels are moist and sugary. This is called the milk stage. Field corn is harvested after the plant dies and the kernels dry down to 15-25% moisture. Although field corn can be picked and eaten in the milk stage, it is not nearly as sweet and tender as sweet corn varieties.
My sweet corn selling days are over, but my dad still grows some each year. My family gathers at the peak of the season for a sweet-corn freezing party. Everyone is involved. My dad and brothers head to the field early in the morning to pick. My kids, nieces, and nephews enjoy shucking the corn with grandpa, and the rest of us are busy from mid-morning through evening cutting, boiling, and bagging corn. The experience has turned my young children into little corn-snobs, who refuse to eat canned or frozen corn from the grocery store. I agree that Iowa-grown sweet corn is the best there is!