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Sweet corn hits the market

So much for being knee-high by the Fourth of July.

This year's sweet corn crop was higher than most knees by Memorial Day.

With warm, sunny weather and modern growing techniques, some farms have been picking corn for a week.

"It's probably the earliest we've ever picked with the varieties that are out now," said Bill Zittel of Amos Zittel and Sons in Eden.

His farming colleagues in Niagara County have been picking for a week, too.

"We had an early spring," said Dave Coulter of Coulter Farms in Cambria. "We would normally try to have it by the first [of July]."

There's always a friendly competition to be the first to harvest and bring food to the customer.
"This is a great time for farmers, because they're starting to bring things to market," Coulter said.
This early sweet corn is going to farm markets and road side stands first, like Spoth's Farm Market on Transit Road in Amherst, and Agle's on Route 62 in Eden.

"Usually the competition was to see who could get corn by July 4," said Robert Hadad, vegetable specialist for Niagara County Cornell Cooperative Extension. "Now this year it's weeks early. When you think about the weather we had, there was a possibility the real early stuff got hit by the freeze."

Farmers getting the crop out in the last week planted seeds in late March and covered the seed rows with plastic, which acts as a mini-hothouse. And since corn grows from the middle of the plant, while outer leaves may have been damaged by the spring frost, the whole plant survived, Zittel said.

Coulter said it was difficult to determine when to cut the plastic open with the late spring frosts. One day he and his partner, Jeff Hall, planned to do it, but they had to delay because of the cold weather. Some days, frost covered the ground in the morning, and by the next day it was almost too hot for covered plants.

"Early corn is risky. It's a gamble," he said. "You can't tell what might happen."

It can also be profitable, with prices this week reaching $5.50 a dozen. But with the added costs of plastic, fertilizer and early watering, coupled with uncertain weather, it's not always a sure thing.
There was so much rain in the spring last year that farmers had a hard time getting crops in the ground. This year, it's the lack of rain they have to contend with, and the cost of extra irrigation, sometimes 24 hours a day.

"I would rather have it dry and know that we can irrigate and put the water on when we need it," Zittel said. "It's much easier to add it than it is to take it off."

"It's been three weeks since we had rain," Coulter said.

Still, it's been a good season so far for many homegrown vegetables, with many of them coming up early. Farmers will be watching to see if other plants come up ahead of time. While they did not see as much disease, there have been some insects threatening some crops.

"It's been a really crazy season again. Every season seems to be crazy in one way or another," Hadad said. "It got off to a good start, there's some really nice-looking stuff out there for this early in the year."