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Joe Smith laughed as he summed up what it takes for him to keep a steady supply of most everyone's favorite summer grain at farmers markets and Smith's Acres, the Niantic produce and plant store he owns with his wife, Teri.
"When corn season starts, my life ends," the bearded 60-year-old known as "Farmer Joe" said with a smile. He was driving his van to a Glastonbury cornfield Monday morning, a daily ritual until his own crop on rented land in East Lyme is ready for picking. "There are two things that draw customers in the summer - corn and tomatoes. When we don't have fresh corn every day, people go away mad."
Boiled, grilled or eaten raw, fresh, local sweet corn inspires near fanatical devotion that drives people to adjust their summer routines around getting to the local farm stand as soon as the day's fresh supply arrives. Just before 9 a.m. Monday, as he headed to check his 10-acre cornfield on Bride Brook Road, where corn-loving deer, raccoons and coyotes are a persistent problem despite the 6-foot nylon fence, Smith's cellphone rang. It was his wife, telling him customers were already at the store asking when the corn would arrive.
"I'll be there in 5 minutes," he told his wife.
The corn addicts start returning every July 4, he said. Among his loyal corn customers are the "two-ear man," who comes to the store every day for just two ears, and the couple who buy 18 ears every week at one of the 12 farmers markets where he and his five seasonal workers sell produce. And what about the lore that the sugary flavor of corn deteriorates rapidly after picking, prompting some to insist on having a pot of water already boiling on the stove before it's even picked? That may have been reasonable behavior for corn aficionados of the past, Smith said, but modern varieties don't require such extreme measures to enjoy peak flavor.
"Today's corn holds up very well," said Smith, who eats his own corn raw or roasted on a charcoal grill. "Keep it in the husk, in a bag in the refrigerator for three or four days, and it's just as good."
Long before the local food movement took hold and "locavore" became part of contemporary slang, devotees of local sweet corn knew the way to the closest source of plump gold and cream-colored kernels, ever eager for the season's first ears and consuming as much as possible before it ended. Statewide, 295 farms grow 3,922 acres of sweet corn, according to Steven Jensen, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. New varieties and planting methods such as using plastic row covers to keep soil warm in early spring have lengthened Connecticut's corn season by several weeks, meaning the first corn ripens sooner than earlier generations remember.
"It used to be rare to have corn on July 4," said Smith, who grew up in East Lyme and worked at local farms as a teenager before heading to college to study horticulture. "Now it's rare not to have it."
For his part, Smith sells 600 to 1,800 ears of corn per day at markets and his store, but corn, now going for $6 a dozen, accounts for only 10 to 15 percent of his total sales. Not having it, though, isn't a realistic option, he said. Growing corn can be more labor- and land-intensive than other crops, he said, but many customers would go elsewhere if he didn't have it, especially the ears from his own fields in East Lyme, where he expects to start picking in a week or so. Then workers will start their days before sunrise, wearing headlamps to pick in the dark.
"A lot of people wait until my corn comes in," he said. "I'll put my corn up against anyone's corn."
This year, Smith faced a setback in his corn crop when he lost access to a 6-acre parcel he had been renting because the land was sold. There, he grew his favorite variety, Golden Bantam, but because corn cross-pollinates, different varieties have to be isolated. This year, he's only growing bicolor, or "butter and sugar" corn, on the 10-acre field owned by the state Department of Correction, and is searching for at least 5 or 6 more acres to rent for next year. Overall, Smith has 25 acres where he grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, the biggest portion occupied by the tall, tasseling stalks, which only produce one saleable ear apiece.
"Corn is a big land eater," Smith said. "And we have to plant in sections, another row of seed every four days, because corn ripens so fast and gets overripe quickly."
His first rows were planted May 10, he said, and the last, planted last week, will be ready for harvest in mid-October. Between planting and harvest, there's fertilizing, cultivating to control weeds, setting pheromone traps to control destructive moths and trying to keep other pests away, and hoping a hurricane doesn't come through to topple the crop, as happened three years ago. And then there's trucking the corn, broccoli, peaches, apples, cucumbers and the rest of his bounty to the store and the weekly farm markets from Greenwich to Danbury to New Haven, plus local ones in Niantic, Waterford and New London.
"We have some really good farm markets for corn," he said. "On a Saturday, sometimes I sell 30 bags, with five dozen per bag."