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.

"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."

More vigorous corn might be handy in spring seasons similar to this past one, which has been wetter than normal, Allen notes.

"We've had a lot of unusual rain, so conditions have been conducive to fungal diseases," he says.

Perryman agrees. "The blight pressure, which is a result of the cool, wet weather in recent weeks, has been pretty intense. But that will start tapering off as the weather dries up and it gets hotter," he says.

Beiriger says these types of growing seasons help researchers learn about the diseases. "If you go out and look at my field right now, you can tell which lines have some form of northern leaf blight in them because they're brown," he says. "You can select the greener plants and overall you'll have better northern leaf blight resistance. It is a complicated and long process, but years like this help us greatly. We've had an above-average spring for rain. We have had two events with greater than three inches."

Beiriger says he is seeing progress with corn's tolerance for diseases, adding that a lot of improvement is coming in the form of resisting root rot. He credits seed breeders for doing their share of work, too.

Perryman of Hundley Farms says there is always something new each year, adding that growers are always putting in trials and staying on top of the latest technology.

The season's biggest pests

Beiriger says fall armyworms and silk flies are the most troublesome pests this year.

"Fall armyworms start off when the plant comes out, and they can act as cut worms and cut the plant off," he says. "As the ear is formed, they'll get in or behind it and damage it. They affect basically every part of the plant."

When they are bad, controlling the problem may require 15 or more sprays, he says, defining this year as a "moderate" one.

The corn silk fly has a maggot that attacks the ear from the silk channel, Beiriger says, adding that the key to controlling silk flies is to scout for adult flies.

"If you find them, you spray heavily for them," he says.

Perryman says silk flies haven?t been overly problematic so far this year.

But, he adds, the year isn't over.

"You get more of that when you start getting into the later months, like June—that's very spotty," he says. "It's hot."

Growers should be mindful that culls also could attract silk flies, Perryman notes.

"You have to be pretty vigilant," he says. "You keep it away from the regular crop. I actually had a guy from the university coming down to do some research on basically where they get started from. They have control measures."

Prevention is essential

Perhaps the best measures to control pests and diseases are preventive ones, and that's where field scouts come in, Perryman says. He hires Glades Crop Care, a consulting firm and scouting service.

"They walk every field," Perryman says.

Having eyes in the field reporting on what they see and don't see can help control the impulse to spray, Perryman says.

"We don't just go out and spray on a regular basis just to be spraying," he says. "We go out and get crop reports to make sure what we're finding is what we're actually treating for. We go with varying amounts of pesticides, and these guys walk and everything is documented."

In a high-stakes business, it only makes sense to minimize the gamble, Bergmann says.

"Farming is risky business," Bergmann adds. "There's a lot of perils out there, and the reward has to justify the risk, or why do it?"

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