Sweet corn is a deep-rooted local tradition

By on July 5, 2017
Nate Reiff takes a look as some of the early grown-under-plastic sweet corn he expects to be selling at Reiff’s Farm Market by the Fourth of July. Photo by Dick Wanner

Nate Reiff takes a look at some of the early grown-under-plastic sweet corn he expects to be selling by the Fourth of July.

Early sweet corn has been trickling into Lancaster County from growers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but the county’s official start of the local sweet corn season was July 4.

Nate Reiff, a partner with his brother, Ed, in Reiff’s Farm Market, Ephrata, is ready for Independence Day. Reiff planted some of his early varieties — 65 days from planting to harvest — under black plastic. That turned out to be a particularly good move this year because cool weather slowed the growth of conventionally planted crop.

The plastic cover kept the soil warm enough for the crop to mature at its usual pace. On a visit to a field with plastic-covered rows, Reiff peeled a couple of ears, shared one with this reporter, and we conducted a field taste test. The raw kernels were sweet and tender, and they’ll be absolutely ready for July Fourth customers. Reiff pointed across the road to another field, planted the same day but without plastic. They’ll start picking that crop in about two weeks, he said.

This was the first year Reiff planted corn directly into black plastic, he said, but it will not likely be his last.

The Reiffs have been greeting customers at the Ephrata location, their only store, since they started their direct marketing business in 1988. Their 25 acres of sweet corn take up about half their tillable acres. Their other main crop is 15 acres of peaches. The day we visited to talk about corn, the market was in the last few days of selling Eastern Shore product. It was also the first day they sold peaches from their orchard.

Reiff said they sell the entire output of their 25-acre corn land through their roadside market on Rothsville Road, between Akron and Rothsville.

Andrew Frankenfeld is an extension educator for agronomy with Penn State extension in Montgomery County. He’s also a grower, harvesting about 18 acres this season. He doesn’t use plastic covers, and said his crop will likely be market-ready the second week in July. He said he and his neighbors were hampered by this year’s cool, wet spring, but he’s expecting his county to have a good crop.

Vernon Hoover, at Hoover’s Farm Market outside Lititz, grows 15 acres of conventionally planted sweet corn. He’s not comfortable with the economics of plastic cover, so he doesn’t use it. Because his customers expect sweet corn by Independence Day, he does buy some at the Leola produce market. One factor that makes him leery of plastic is the possibility that some years, the conventional crop will mature just as quickly as the covered crop, which creates a bit of a marketing challenge.

He’s addressed another marketing challenge by pricing his crop by the number of ears rather than a cost per dozen.

“The definition is ‘dozen’ is more or less approximate to some people,” he said, “so they’ll have 13 or 14 ears in a bag. One guy wanted to pay the dozen price for 17 ears.”

Hoover said he started planting the middle of April. He’ll be replanting every week until the middle of July.

Joe Stahl moved with his parents to their family farm near the Lancaster Airport in 1956. He was six months old, and he’s still working the land where he grew up. He and his son, James, are partners in the Harvest Lane Farm Market, which is open Monday through Saturday year-round.

Stahl plants his early varieties under plastic. They got off to a good start this year and he harvested his first ears on June 24, a good week-and-a-half before Lancaster County’s corn-crazed consumers are in high demand mode for their Fourth of July ears. He times his succession plants so his customers will have fresh ears available until the first killing frost in October.

Like other growers we talked to, Stahl said he grows what his customers want, and what they want is either white or bicolor corn on the cob. They mostly don’t want yellow. He does grow a yellow Honey Select variety because he likes it, and so do a few of his customers. Yellow corn is just as tasty and sweet as other varieties, Stahl said, and this particular consumer preference is just a matter of perception.

For the Fourth of July, Stahl expects to have a good supply of Illusion white sweet corn, which he’ll be selling until the longer season varieties — 75 to 80 days maturity — kick in. Mattapoisett is one of his most popular whites, a variety this reporter had never heard of but which will be on his table come July.

Who’d ever think to plant Lancaster County sweet corn in January? Meet Jim Erb, owner and corn guru at Brook Lawn Farm Market, four miles south of Lititz on Route 501. Erb likes to grow his early corn under clear plastic. Plastic begets an early crop, he said, but the January crop did what he expected it to do. It froze, but not before the seedlings had emerged and sprouted eight or so leaves. Needless to say, it was an experimental planting and not a very big plot. He also tried February with the same results.

Erb likes to tinker. He started tinkering with his planting-under-plastic method because he didn’t like making four passes over a row to get his crop under plastic. “On the first pass we made two shallow trenches separated by a mound. Seed went in on the second pass, herbicide on the third pass and plastic on the fourth pass,” Erb said.

Erb wanted to do everything in a single pass. It took a lot of tinkering.

“I learned there were 25 ways to do something wrong before I came up with one way that worked,” he said.

Making things work is obviously an Erb family tradition. Erb’s parents, Roy and Ruth Erb, began selling fresh produce out of a farm wagon, where the store is now located, in 1950. they added a small building in 1954, which they dismantled every year at the end of the growing season. Brook Lawn now operates out of an up-to-date-with-a-rustic-feel building still at the site where the farm wagon was parked 67 years ago.

The Lititz Pike (Route 501) is one of the county’s most congested roads, with thousands of cars passing by on any given day. It’s a good location, we suggested.

“Yes, but,” Erb said, “a good location doesn’t do you any good if you’re not selling quality product. Our goal is to go 10-for-10, every hour of the day, and every day of the week.”

What he means is that for every 10 years of corn picked, 10 ears have to measure up to his quality expectations. That means leaving corn in the field for another day or two until the ears are exactly ready. “If we pick a row, and only one ear out of 30 is ready, then we go back the next day and the next until we get all the good ears.”

Erb’s daughter, Diana, and his wife, Romaine, lead the work force in the store. He manages the fields and the orchards with summer help, consisting mostly of local high school and college students. It takes a bit of training for a newbie to recognize exactly when an ear of corn is precisely ready to pick, or when a peach is going to give the consumer just the taste and juiciness he or she expects.

Erb works alongside his trainees in the field until they grasp the nuances of what he’s looking for.

Like the other growers we talked to for this story, Erb has deep roots in the land he’s known since childhood. The growers we visited have also learned how to define and meet their customers’ expectations, and they all seem destined for a multi-generational way of business and way of life that was “local” before “local” was a thing.

Dick Wanner is a staff writer and photographer for the Ephrata Review. He welcomes reader feedback at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com.


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