Apr 7, 2007
Sweet Corn Charlie: Season Extension Is Strategy For Success

If you can have sweet corn by the Fourth of July in northern Indiana, you’ll grab customers and, if the corn’s good enough, you’ll keep them for the entire season. That doesn’t mean knee-high corn stalks – it means ears of ripe, supersweet corn ready for Independence Day festivities.

That’s 25 days before most growers can have it in that area, but Chuck Mohler of Millersburg, Ind., has been doing it for several years now. He uses a mix of season extension techniques, including starting sweet corn in cells in greenhouses for transplanting into the fields and covering the rows with plastic low tunnels to protect them from freezes and intensify the sun’s heat in early April.

Mohler – widely known as Sweet Corn Charlie – was a featured speaker at three sessions of the Ohio Fruit, Vegetable and Potato Growers Congress in Columbus in mid-January. He talked to growers about the technology he uses and to the Ohio Direct Agricultural Marketing Association about his marketing techniques.

While he focused on sweet corn, he grows a full line of produce to serve seven market locations, and early is a key goal. He uses row covers and high tunnels, transplanting and grafting as tools to achieve that.

Mohler, who has the look of a grown-up flower child, was a dairy farmer who spent time living on farms in Israel in the early 1980s.

“I saw some unique techniques there, but I also saw how they thought,” he said.

Israel, a country the size of Massachusetts, is surrounded by hostile neighbors, has a shortage of arable land – much of it poor, dry and stony – has a dry climate that is too cold in winter to grow unprotected plants, and needs to produce food for its own security. The Israeli response to the hostile conditions was innovation, he said. The Israelis invented drip irrigation and developed greenhouse production, plasticulture and techniques such as vegetable grafting.

U.S. farmers also face a hostile environment, Mohler said. Government free-trade policies allow easy access to markets for imports, while labor laws and environmental regulations make it difficult for domestic growers. Fickle consumers and large box stores want to buy cheap food. The climate in much of the country shortens the marketing season for local produce.

Mohler saw that the techniques the Israelis were developing to deal with their hostile environment would work on his farm as well. He went into the produce business.

Early season production of melons, sweet corn and tomatoes, he reasoned, would draw customers hungry for fresh, ripe, local produce and act as a lever for season-long sales. Consumers, while fickle, are driven by good quality, so once at his markets they keep coming all season long. The longer he can sell produce, the more income he can generate.

The big stores provide produce out-of-season, but in-season they can be routed.

“Produce quality in the big stores is falling,” he said. “Nobody takes care of it.”

The “early and high-quality” strategy has worked. Sweet Corn Charlie Produce is now sold at seven locations in northern Indiana. He sells 70 acres of sweet corn – 1,200 dozen per acre starting at $6 a dozen – plus cantaloupes, watermelons, green beans, peppers, kohl rabi, beets, cabbage, eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes and summer squash.

For the last three years, he’s been working with growing grafted melons, peppers and tomatoes. Melons can be grafted onto squash rootstocks and peppers can be grown on tomato roots. The combination of desirable scion and vigorous, disease-resistant root can translate into plants that can be transplanted into less desirable soils and produce higher-quality fruit.

In addition, five high tunnels are used to get tomatoes started in February to bring them to market by June 1. Tunnels are all sizes, the biggest 32 feet by 200 feet. They also grow cucumbers on trellises, peppers and some lettuces in high tunnels.

Early production is encouraged by his tillage methods. He grows sorghum-sudangrass in late summer to produce a large green mass that he plows down in the fall. He plows to create ridges 6.5 feet wide, onto which he will plant the next spring. The ridges dry off and warm up earlier. There is a driveway every 10 rows.

While early is key to getting the season rolling right, Mohler figures people are tired of fresh vegetables by October, so he turns to preparing for next year rather than trying to extend production past frost time.

Mohler, his wife Tami and two sons Sammy and Danny work with other locals to produce and market the produce. He hires young people to work in the fields and adults to work at the markets. Sweet corn is harvested by hand, but he uses a conveyor as an aid to the pickers.

His sweet corn is all supersweet bicolor. The supersweets are “fickle to grow,” he said, but “forgiving” to the customers. They hold their sweetness with a “disaster factor” for the customer who buys the corn, leaves it in a hot car all day without refrigeration, and still wants a good eating experience.

The corn goes into bins, which go to the markets on trailers along with color-coded bins of other vegetables – a different color for each market. Tami handles organization and makes lists each day of how much produce each market is to get so those who’ll be manning the market can get the fruits and vegetables ready to load on the trailers. At the markets, employees bag the sweet corn by hand into dozen and half-dozen bags, checking every ear for faults as they pack.

“We don’t do it perfectly,” she said. “But we’re after it all the time. You’ll also sell a lot more corn if you bag it.”

Quality is key. Plants are spaced differently depending upon earliness, but the goal is one good marketable ear per plant. Mohler does not want a second, smaller ear.

“We pick the best and leave the rest,” he said.

Mohler said he researches local areas before placing a new market.

“It doesn’t pay to go to a place where customers don’t have the money to pay,” he said. “Cheap food – let somebody else grow it.”

That tough attitude, however, isn’t really matched by his attitude toward customers. He wants his markets to reflect a farm style, not a supermarket style. Typically, they are 40-foot square, open-sided tents with display tables and floors made of limestone. No concrete and no mud, either.

“We want to be just what we are – farmy,” he said.

The markets are no-frills affairs. There aren’t even cash registers, or electricity to run them. Employees add up the prices on pads of paper – no calculators allowed.

Still, “customers like an orderly, organized market.” The tubs containing produce are all a standard size and color and sit at a slant on tables built to hold them in place. All employees wear yellow T-shirts with their names embroidered on them. Markets are open six days a week. Customers may order larger quantities at a lesser price, and pick them up at the markets.

Mohler remains impressed by Israel and the can-do, international outlook of its people. He goes there once a year, and thinks American farmers could do well by looking outside their world for new ideas.

He admires the Dutch as well, noting how much they’ve contributed to the produce world from their hostile environment surrounded by – and lying lower than – the North Sea.

American farmers, too, face a hostile world, he said, and need to innovate to continue farming.

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