How sweet it is

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

"We're trying to get more for our sweet corn because our growing costs increased," he says. "All food costs are up, and sweet corn is, too. The cost has gone up probably on average maybe 18 percent, whereas our production costs have gone up 35 to 40 percent."

Growers of some crops across the country—perhaps, most notably, potato growers—have cut back on their acreage in order to bring returns more in line with costs.

Sweet corn growers in Florida aren't facing the same pressure yet, according to Allen.

"I think it's around the corner," he says. "It could be forthcoming very fast because to be able to get what we need for our sweet corn, we're going to have to grow less. It's all about supply and demand, and for us to choose that, we have to cut our acreage until some of these inputs, whether fuel or fertilizers, are corrected. It's just killing us."

He says growers are paying $460 a ton for liquid fertilizers today, compared to $220 a ton just two years ago. And with Florida's humid climate, corn can become infested with a variety of pests or develop any number of these diseases at any given time, says Robert Beiriger, senior biological scientist with UF/IFAS. That equates to more pesticides and fungicides, and more operational costs, that other corn growing regions across the country.

Allen says it's a tribute to the growers that their numbers haven't shrunk in the face of those cost pressures.

Dealing with diseases

The range of pests and diseases is long—armyworms, wireworms, borers and silkflies, southern rust and leaf blight are among the most common problems.

This year, Allen says, southern rust and northern leaf blight are the most pervasive diseases. The usual regimen of chemicals remains common, and growers are trying to produce varieties that are resistant to blight. But researchers are working on disease-resistant solutions, too, he says.

University scientists have developed a supersweet variety that may be hardier, says Curt Hannah, professor of horticultural sciences at UF in Gainesville.

"We've patented a gene that's used that increases sugars but the seedling vigor is much better than it is with other supersweet corns," Hannah says. "The advantage is it has superior germination and seedling vigor compared to other supersweet corns, but the sugar level is still quite high and people like it. So, it tastes like a supersweet but germinates better than other supersweets."

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