Looking for fresh summer sweet corn? Here's why it may be hard to find

Corn stock photo.
Photo credit Getty Images

It might be the peak of sweet corn season, but a drought impacting the Midwest has depleted crops and made fresh ears more expensive in some cases, reported the Star Tribune.

Usually, fresh corn is a staple item at summer barbecues.

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“I've had less I'm able to sell this summer," said Cher Yang, who grows corn and sells it at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. “This year has been very hard — it's regrow, regrow, regrow, water, water, water.”

When corn is harder to grow, prices climb higher. For those who buy corn from Yang, this means eight ears cost $5, compared to 12 for $5 in previous years.

Dave Nathe, who grows 160 acres of sweet corn near Elk River, Minn., said this season has been unlike any other in his memory.

“It's never been this dry for this long,” he said. “There's been some spotty showers where some farms will catch an inch, two inches. But we haven't caught anything in weeks.”

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Since 1980, Nathe has run Riverside Farms, a family business that supplies sweet corn and other vegetables to farmers markets and grocery stores around the Twin Cities. He uses an irrigation system that pulls water from the Mississippi River, but he is worried the state Department of Natural Resources might make him turn it off if the weather stays dry into September.

“There's decision fatigue for a lot of farmers around what to water and when right now," said Natalie Hoidal, who researches local vegetable production for University of Minnesota Extension. “Most of the smaller growers don't have a significant irrigation infrastructure.”

She said that even though sweet corn is more drought-tolerant than some other crops, it still needs proper irrigation.

Chris Utecht, another Minneapolis market vendor who raises sweet corn near New Richmond, Wis., has 12 acres on irrigated land owned by a friend, and another five acres on his own land and has a limited watering system. He said he can tell the difference between irrigated and non-irrigated corn.

While small farmers are impacted, slowed-down sweet corn production doesn’t mean increased prices at grocery stores.

“We're swimming in sweet corn right now,” Emerson Sample, the assistant produce manager at Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, said late last week, according to the Star Tribune. “We've got it going for 99 cents an ear, which is about as low as we get.”

Bigger grocery chains often buy sweet corn from around the country, said Charlie Rohwer, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca.

“If you're buying sweet corn at Cub Foods, there's a good chance it came from Florida or Texas or Indiana or Missouri,” Rohwer said.

Minnesota is the country's top producer of sweet corn for processing such as canning and freezing and most of this corn is grown in the southeast and south-central parts of the state, an area hit hard by drought. Rohwer said corn in the region mostly grown without irrigation because it doesn't have to look good on the cob to be used for processing,

However, Jerry Untiedt, the supplier for the sweet corn concession at the Minnesota State Fair, which sells about 200,000 ears a year, said his corn is looking rough this year.

“If you peel back the tip a little bit, that area should be filled with kernels out to the very end. But if it's short of moisture, that doesn't happen,” he explained.

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