Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Where's the Corn??!?!

By Farmer Richard

Before and after cultivating pictures. 
We have planted four different plantings of sweet corn, with the first on April 28.  With each planting we plant two different varieties of corn, each with different maturity dates so we can get two weeks of corn from each planting for a total harvest window of eight weeks!  Unfortunately, things don’t always work out as planned.  Corn needs warm soil to germinate and if you think back to April, it was a cold, wet spring.  We picked a warm day, 65°F, when the forecast was for a second warm, dry day to follow.   We planted varieties with good cold soil vigor and only planted the seeds about ½ inch deep with hopes that the sun would warm the top of the soil enough to get the seeds going.  The first 24 hours are the most important to start the germination process.  One variety germinated ok, the second variety produced very few sprouts and wasn’t enough of a crop to keep.  Well, the first planting didn’t go so well, so the second time out, still cool, we replanted part of the ground we had planted the first time and, again, planted shallow.  This time it turned dry and the seed germinated unevenly over the course of two weeks after a small rain.  Ok, well that’s better than nothing, but then we had a wet period that prevented cultivation and weeds became a problem!  Thankfully, the third planting came up nicely and we had dry weather to cultivate it, so no weeds!  We followed this one with our fourth and final planting.  We decided to make it a larger one to try to make up for the poor early ones.  Even though the first two plantings weren’t that great, we chose to fence them anyway to keep the critters out.  So then what happened?  Well, July 19th happened and we had a severe weather event that sent water running across the middle of the field and took out the fence and much of the corn. 

After the rain, there wasn’t much left to do except clean up the fence.  We left the corn, fully exposed, for the raccoons as a sort of peace offering that they could have as much as they wanted from this field, but please stay out of the later plantings!  The last two plantings that are in a different field looked good initially, but after 8 plus inches of rain the plants started to yellow.  The excessive moisture rotted the main tap root leaving only shallow side roots, collaterals, supporting the plants!  The dry end of the field fared a little better and will produce some ears this week.  The remainder of the field is delayed and the quality of the corn is questionable as the ears haven’t filled out properly.  Nonetheless, we put up a 7-foot high fence with an electric tape running around the base of it.  The height of the fence will deter the deer and the low electric tape will keep the raccoons and other short, 4-legged creatures out of the field.  We also put up some owl and hawk decoys as well as bird scare eye balloons and reflective streamers to deter the birds.  Aside from playing some music and having a dance party, I’m not sure what else we can do!  Why have we gone to such extensive measures to protect our corn?  Well, it’s because we have a reputation amongst our local wildlife for having excellent sweet corn.  Unfortunately this is information that is passed on from generation to generation and thus, it is a never-ending, yet peaceful battle for us.

So our last field of corn is protected with all the bells and whistles to protect it from raccoons, deer, birds, and even bears!   But wait, there’s one more pest.   It’s the dreaded corn earworm!!  We monitor corn earworm presence by putting up a pheromone trap in the field to attract the corn earworm moths.   They migrate from the south and only arrive later in the season.  The female moths lay eggs on the new silk on the ears of corn and then 4-5 days later the eggs hatch and a worm emerges.  Conveniently, they are in perfect position to infiltrate the ear in their search for something to eat.  It is very difficult to combat this pest with any type of spray because you only have a small 2-day window of opportunity to kill the worm after it hatches and before it enters the ear of corn.  Once it’s in the ear, there’s nothing else that can be done.  So I use this pheromone trap to help me monitor the presence of the moths so we can try to time our spray applications with the best chance of killing the newly hatched worms.  I hadn’t found any moths up until last week when I found 12 corn earworm moths in the trap in one night!  That is the most I’ve ever caught in 40 years of using pheromone traps!  So where does that leave our last and best hope for sweet corn?  Only time will tell.

There was a time when huge flocks of bats emerging from caves in the south intercepted the moth migration and devastated their numbers.  Any moths that did make it to our region would be taken care of by our local bat populations.  Sadly, bat populations are being decimated by “white nose syndrome” brought on by a compromised immune system from eating insects that are contaminated with neonicotinoid insecticides used extensively in modern, conventional agriculture.  This leaves us facing a potentially severe earworm invasion!  We do have two organically approved insecticides that we can use, BT (bacillus thuringiensis) and Entrust.  Alejandro has been very diligent working late on Saturday night to time the application just right and try to coat the silks and infect the worms before they enter the ear.  Neither of these insecticides are systemic.  Conventional growers use systemic insecticides, such as neonicotinoids and GMO traits, that poison all parts of the corn plant thereby killing the earworm no matter where it is on the plant or in the ear.  But I don’t want that in my ear of corn!  I do not care to eat systemically poisoned corn!  Our experience is that it is impossible to kill every earworm with organic sprays.  We are doing our best, but if you find a worm on the tip of the corn in a future week, we hope you will cut off the tip and enjoy the remainder of the ear which I guarantee will be delicious.  It may be the best corn you have ever eaten and will be the best we can do for this year!

Well, battling corn critters is not the only thing we’ve been doing around the farm, so I’d like to share a few other farm and crop updates.  Overall it has been a cool summer!  Beautiful weather to work in with highs around 75°F and just a few days creeping into the 80’s, but nothing higher than that and cool nights dipping down to 50-60°F.  The eggplant has done well and the peppers look great and are ripening to orange and red.  The tomatoes, on the other hand, have been slow to ripen and the second planting may not ripen at all before we see the first fall frost!  Yes, we are close to the first fall frost which is still predicted for around September 15.  It’s been a few years since we’ve picked green tomatoes before a frost, but this just might be the year.  Don’t worry, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Fried green tomato sandwiches are delicious!

Carnival Squash still on the vine.
The sweet potatoes look very good and have set on many tubers that just need some heat to “size-up.”  The jicama also has some nice roots and could be a good crop if the moisture stays steady to avoid growth cracks!  We will likely be harvesting some of the winter squash before too long, so we’ve been working diligently to get all of the onions and shallots trimmed and put into the cooler for long term storage so we can use our greenhouses for the squash! 

Salad Mix planting
While many farmers are done planting, we still have several more weeks of plantings remaining.  Earlier this week we beat the rain to do our final planting of fall turnips and daikon radish as well as our weekly plantings which included our first planting of lettuce for fall salad mix!  In addition to harvest, planting, etc, we are working on removing trees and repairing a major drainage ditch that dumped silt and rock onto one of our fields during the weather event at the end of July.  It’s quite an undertaking, but I think we’re making progress and we’re hopeful it will keep the water contained should we have another big weather event in the future.  

We believe climate change is real, so we’re not wondering “If” it will happen again but rather we are preparing for when it happens again!  We may not see the extended warm fall we have seen for several years, but we will do our best to respond to the extremes, both hot and cold!  We hope you will be understanding as crops continue to come in.  Like it or not, we’re in this together and these are the realities of farming this year.  Despite the challenges, we are reminded every day of the bounty of food our resilient fields continue to produce.  We are truly blessed and grateful for the opportunity to share this summer bounty of vegetables with you this week.   

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