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Sweet corn good cash crop for P.E.I. grower

good cash crop for P.E.I. grower


April 17, 2008
By Kathy Birt

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Taste and quality are foremost on the mind of Barry Hill, at Hill’s Produce vegetable stand in Mayfield, Prince Edward Island.

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Planting is well underway at Hill’s Produce.

Taste and quality are foremost on the mind of Barry Hill, at Hill’s Produce vegetable stand in Mayfield, Prince Edward Island.

Hill grows a variety of vegetables and amongst the eight to 10 vegetables grown, sweet corn stands out.

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On the 200 acres of land that make up the family farm where 48-year-old Hill grew up, 12 acres of vegetables are grown annually with half the acreage devoted to sweet corn. These vegetables are picked and sold fresh daily at the easily recognizable, bright-red roadside stand spelling out Hill’s Produce.

According to the Hill family’s history, Barry’s father, Ira, was known as the Vegetable Man. So it’s no surprise that vegetables offer immediate payback for this next generation. Hill says this is where and how he learned his market gardening and vegetable growing skills. “My father was into gardening and supplied the tourist market for years. So, I’m more or less walking in his footsteps.”

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Barry Hill 

Hill plants his corn about mid-May, speeding the germination and growth of the corn by covering it with clear plastic. “I cover half the acreage with plastic and leave it on about four weeks,” explains Hill, adding that about a week before removing the plastic, long slits are cut to allow the corn to adjust to the air temperature without shocking the plants. “It also helps stimulates growth as well. In nature, every action presents a reaction.”

The plastic is put on by machine, one row at a time, and has to be removed manually, entailing a couple hours of what Hill terms “messy work.”

He is quick to say the plastic is worth the investment of $500 per acre, if it is put on early. Using the plastic speeds the growth of the corn, assuring an early harvest when market demand is at its pique. And he adds, “Using the plastic means having fresh corn about 10 to 14 days earlier (than if the crop was not covered).”

And so, a fresh supply is available throughout the season, rather than having all the corn ripe at the same time.

Aside from supplying the fresh market through his retail stand, Hill also wholesales a portion of his sweet corn to Brookfield Gardens. “Their biggest market is carrots, along with a variety of other (vegetables), but they don’t grow a lot of corn, so I supply them,” notes Hill.

He also supplies a vendor at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, as well as some retail stores in high tourist areas such as Rustico and Cavendish. These wholesale markets make certain that Hill’s corn is spread around the province. And with the multitude of customers stopping at his roadside stand on a daily basis, Hill sweet corn is enjoyed by people far and near.

Growing five different varieties of the sweet corn, Hill said he is always changing and trying out new varieties and, in most cases, is able to produce about 1,200 to 1,500 dozen ears to the acre.

His market research has proven that the peaches-and-cream varieties are the favoured corn feast, but he still grows some of the old standby, yellow corn. “Consumer demand points to peaches-and-cream, and I am able to sell it all in the fresh market.”

This fresh market includes many repeat customers who fill up cottages and campgrounds on P.E.I. during the summer months. “The corn is picked fresh daily and the customers say it’s the best they’ve ever eaten. They are able to get it at its best stage. I usually have fresh corn by the 10th of August, depending on the weather and the varieties. And, I usually have corn right through until the end of September. It’s the different varieties and the plastic covering that gives me the longer season.”

Sandra MacKinnon, information officer for the Agriculture Extension Services with the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture, said there is no single farmer on P.E.I. growing large acreages of corn.

She says with any crop, including sweet corn, problems can come up but notes, “If everything goes well on the production side, and management skills are in place, corn can provide a good return.”

MacKinnon says for a grower to reap 1,200 to 1,500 (dozen ears) per acre may sound like a good return, but adds, “All labour costs must be built into this.”

Hill employs two farm workers for the spring planting and at harvest time has one full-time person taking care of the retail stand while two others harvest. “I hire other workers to do piece work for the beans and strawberries, but with the corn, my brother and I do that.”

During harvest, the corn is picked into wheelbarrows and placed into nylon mesh bags at the headland, five dozen to a bag.

The prices Hill charges for his sweet corn vary between his wholesale and retail markets. Wholesale, he sells his corn for $3.00 per dozen. At the farm gate, the price starts at $5 per dozen during the early season and drops to $4 per dozen, where Hill usually tries to keep it. “Consumers want Island corn and are willing to pay more at the farm gate for quality and freshness.”

Avid about marketing his corn at a fair return, Hill believes local supermarkets are using sweet corn as a drawing card in mid-summer, selling it at ridiculously low prices. “But, the consumer is not getting Island corn. It is most likely from Nova Scotia or B.C.