How sweet it is

05/01/2008 02:00:00 AM
Jim Offner

In a world of chemicals, pest-resistant hybrids and advanced growing techniques, there's nothing better for healthy corn than good-old-fashioned vigilance, Florida sweet-corn growers say.

"The best techniques are good coordination between the managers, people planting, people down in the crop and harvesting," says Tom Perryman, crop manager for Loxahatchee-based Hundley Farms Inc., a member of the Pioneer Growers Co-op. "Good open lines of communication and teamwork. Good management, good varieties, continually trying different varieties and seeing which ones work best."

And, that vigilance seems to be paying off for many growers. At a time when other crops in the Sunshine State are losing acreage to disease, urbanization and escalating costs, Florida sweet corn acreage has stayed steady—even increased a bit. Harvested sweet corn acreage in 2006 was 21,000 and 20,500 in 2007. This season's estimate is 21,700.

Even dreams of big profits fueled by the U.S. government's commitment to corn-based ethanol hasn't cut into Florida's sweet-corn acreage. Though plans are underway to build an ethanol plant in the state, one currently doesn't exist.

"Sweet sorghum seems to be a better source in this area, as well as some other things. At this time, there is no impact on sweet corn acreage in Florida," says Paul Allen, vice president and partner with Pahokee-based R.C. Hatton Farms, one of the state's largest sweet-corn growing operations.

Brett Bergmann, co-owner of growing operation Hugh H. Branch Inc., also in Pahokee, says corn is not going to be the right crop for ethanol, anyway.

"There's other crops where input costs are less and the net gain per acre is greater," he says.

An expensive business

Dedication to the sweet-corn business comes at a price, says Allen, who serves as president of the 21-member Florida Sweet Corn Exchange.

"Our largest concern is our increased cost of operations," he says. "Our fertilizer and fuel input costs have increased over 50 percent over the last two years."

Bergmann estimates his costs have gone up 30 percent.

"Costs were already up due to fuel, because that has increased so much over the last three or four years," he says. "That same fuel runs the trucks that deliver the product, the tractors that deliver product from the fields. Plus, a lot of the fertilizers and pesticides are based on petroleum."

The spike in corn prices across the United States comes as welcome news to Florida sweet-corn growers. But even with the increased returns their getting, they're still losing ground, Allen says.

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