Nov 19, 2012
Sweet corn, peaches pair well for Ohio grower

There aren’t many young fruit and vegetable growers out there, and it worries Gordon Hahn. Hahn, 55, grows fruit, vegetable and grain crops in Huron, Ohio. His seed salesman tells him he’s one of the youngest customers he has.

“I hate to think we’re kind of a dying breed,” Hahn said.

Still, he has mixed feelings about his own children returning to the farm. He and his wife have gotten plenty of help from their two sons and two daughters over the years, but the kids are mostly out of the house at this point, in school or starting their careers.

“I’d like them to farm, but I’ve struggled,” he said. “I don’t want them to struggle.”

Ultimately, the choice will be up to his kids. Perhaps they’ll choose to farm on a part-time basis, he said.

In the meantime, he’ll have to hire more local teenagers to help out, he said.

Hahn farms about 200 acres in north-central Ohio. Most of it is grain crops, but there’s about 35 acres of sweet corn, 4 acres of peaches, an acre of apples and roughly 4 acres of miscellaneous produce, including asparagus, red beets, zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers and melons.

The older he gets, the more Hahn appreciates the grain crops.

“They’re much easier,” he said. “You can make a living on small acres if you have vegetable crops, but it’s backbreaking work.”

With all his crops, he’s picking from July to October. He’s tired by the end of the season. He’s thinking about scaling back his responsibilities in five years or so.

Hahn’s great grandfather started farming in the region about 1880. The family farm used to be wholesale for the most part, but now all the produce is sold retail, straight from the on-farm stand. He depends mostly on repeat customers, many of whom are driving to and from recreational activities on Lake Erie, which is about a mile away from the farm. Labor Day weekend is a big time for sales, he said.

Sweet corn

Sweet corn is Hahn’s “bread and butter,” his most profitable crop. He’s very particular about the varieties he grows. He wants to keep his customers happy, because happy customers keep coming back.

“I grow more for the customer than for yield,” he said. “They want a nice ear.”

He usually starts picking corn between July 15 and July 20, but it was about 10 days early this year. Summer was hot and dry, but some timely rain in June kept his corn from wilting completely. Weather and fluctuating temperatures are an annual challenge, but breezes from Lake Erie help keep his sweet corn cool in spring. They also delay peach bloom a little bit, he said.

But being close to Lake Erie isn’t entirely a blessing. Big flocks of blackbirds roost in marshes near the lake. When they swarm inland looking for food, Hahn’s farm is usually the first one they hit. Thousands of birds have attacked his sweet corn in late July and early August. At one point, about 10 years ago, they were wreaking so much havoc that he almost stopped growing sweet corn altogether. They would pretty much clean out the entire field, sometimes within a day or two of picking, he said.

Using a combination of distress callers, a propane cannon and the occasional shotgun, he can keep the bird problem somewhat under control. By mid-August, the birds usually move on to nearby field corn, which is typically ripe by then, he said.

As far as other pests, raccoons are a constant problem, and deer like to rub against his trees in fall, Hahn said.

Peaches and apples

Typically, winter kill is a much greater problem for Hahn’s peaches than spring frosts. But this year was different. His peach trees normally bloom about May 1, but they were in full bloom by April 1 this time around. They were hit by five successive frosts, with each frost killing a few more buds. Some varieties were hit harder than others. All told, he probably lost 75 percent of his peach crop. What was left was about 10 days earlier than normal, he said.

He planted his first peach trees 15 years ago. He grows most of them in an open-center system, with a few in a Y system. They’re easier to manage than high-density systems, he said.

“I like my orchard, but you can spend a lot of hours in there.”

His peach trees need a lot of attention, but they’re worth it because peaches match up so well with sweet corn. People buying a dozen or so ears like to pick up a bag of peaches along with them, he said.

“They work hand in hand,” Hahn said. “Each crop sells the other. I recommend to people who sell sweet corn to get some peaches.”

Bacterial spot is probably his biggest challenge with peaches, but with a diligent spray program he thinks he has it under control. He grows several varieties, including Red Haven, White Lady, Risingstar, Starfire, Coralstar and some Flamin’ Fury varieties. He prefers selling medium-sized peaches to big peaches, so he tries not to thin too heavily, he said.

In response to customer requests, Hahn decided to try his hand at growing apples about eight years ago. It hasn’t been easy.

“My hat’s off to apple growers,” he said.

As with his peaches, he avoids high-density growing systems.

“I leave that to the experienced guys,” he said.

Hahn’s apples matured about a month early this year, but the frosts didn’t hurt them too much. Last year was much worse. A hailstorm at the end of May nicked up his apple trees, which were then inundated with fire blight. He hardly picked any apples last year because of that. This year, he had to prune his trees severely to try and bring them back.

Mulberries are a problem in his apple and peach orchards. He cuts them back every year, but birds will land in the branches, drop mulberry seeds, and the cycle starts all over again, he said.

Hahn likes apple varieties that coincide with his sweet corn season, like Ginger Gold and Zestar. Gala is his most dependable variety. He grows Honeycrisp, too, but bitter pit has been a problem. Calcium sprays are helping him stay on top of that. Despite its problems, Honeycrisp is worth the effort.

“People beg for them,” he said. “If you sell retail apples, make sure you plant Honeycrisp.”

He doesn’t charge more for Honeycrisp, even though people will pay more. His sweet corn prices are on the higher end, so if customers also buy Honeycrisp apples, he wants them to leave knowing they got a good deal.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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