Growing 350 acres of corn – down from a peak of 600 – may not seem out of the ordinary for Nebraska, one of the largest producers of field corn and popcorn in the United States. Unless it’s sweet corn.

Formerly a field corn and soybean operation, the Daniels family opted to diversify in the early 1980s, after several years of floods, and limited opportunities in conventional field crop production, had them rethinking their operation. Daniels Produce, in Columbus, Nebraska, is owned and operated by Andy and Tannie Daniels and family. Daughter Kelly (Daniels) Jackson serves as office manager and the farm’s spokesperson.

Their dabbling in fresh-market sweet corn, sold at a small roadside stand, eventually led to the development of the wholesale grower/shipper/packer operation, specializing in sweet corn. Ninety-five percent of the farm’s sweet corn acreage – which totals over 6 million ears of corn annually, amounting to a yield of about 1,500 dozen per acre – is sold wholesale each year, leaving a mere 300,000 or so ears for direct market sales via their four retail market stands, vendor booths at several farmers markets, and the Daniels Produce CSA, which includes products from other local farms.

Although sweet corn is their predominant crop, other wholesale vegetables – peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash, pumpkins and winter squash – each claim about 30 to 50 acres of the farm’s 600-acre total production acreage.

“At one point in our production history, we produced closer to 600 acres of sweet corn, but with yield increases and diversifying into more high-intensity crops like bell peppers and zucchini for wholesale, we leveled out at 350 acres,” Jackson said.

The crew of Daniels Produce

Corn cultivation

The farmland includes a large percentage of rented lands. Because they rent land from a variety of owners, they are able to easily practice crop rotation, from parcel to parcel. Although rotation for sweet corn isn’t as critical as it is for some of the other crops, such as cabbage, they rotate all crop fields as much as possible to control diseases and enhance yields.

The land here sits atop of the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a mere 14 feet below ground in this area, a boon when growing sweet corn. Although sweet corn is less thirsty than its field corn kin, it is more shallow rooted, and will require as much as 1/3 inch per day during the tassel to ear fill stages, Jackson said. Water needs are closely monitored with tensiometers. Irrigation is primarily via center pivot systems, which move across the fields.

The planting of a rye cover crop is one of the most important production practices on the farm. The rye absorbs any excess nitrogen from the fields, controls erosion, limits weeds and sequesters carbon. This has important environmental benefits and enhances yields.

Hand-picked sweet corn

After subsoiling the corn fields each spring and discing, multiple soil samples using grid sampling and smart sampling techniques are taken. These allow for precise determination, pinpointing exactly where various nutrients are needed or not.

“We variable rate apply fertilizer per our grid samples to correct any deficiencies in any areas, to even the crop out, which is crucial,” Jackson said. “Then we apply a preemergent herbicide and we are ready to plant.”

They utilize clear plastic on the corn rows, planting through the plastic using a Ferris Farm Polyplanter. The plastic serves to warm the soil and encourage seedling germination. The crop typically gains a week via this method, allowing for the earliest production of sweet corn for their markets. They’ll be planting four different varieties of corn, ranging from 69 to 82 days maturity, to meet 2017 market needs.

“We rely on our seed providers to let us know the up and coming varieties of sweet corn, and they usually send us a sample for us to try. We see how it does in our growing conditions, as far as germination stand; yield; disease and insect resistance; ear length; girth; and, most importantly, flavor,” Jackson said. “We do select our retail and wholesale varieties a bit differently.”

Because retail corn is sold to the consumer and meant to be consumed within a few days of picking, flavor is the most important factor. Flavor is measured by sugar content, kernel tenderness and milkiness of the endosperm. For retail sales, the sugar content is high at picking, but rapidly decreases if held in storage. Brix testing and flavor tests are performed on raw corn. Wholesale corn flavor isn’t as dependent on Brix levels at harvest, but rather focuses on varieties that still have adequate sugar levels after a week or so of storage.

“The characteristic that is weighed heaviest by far in our retail corn is flavor,” she said. “For wholesale production flavor is still key, but other aspects such as shelf life and shank length for ease of boxing into containers” are important. “If you put both ears of corn (retail and wholesale varieties) in our cooler for seven days – which may be the amount of time it takes for our wholesale customers to receive the corn in the warehouse, deliver it to their stores and a consumer to buy it off the shelves – and you Brix test both of them again, the wholesale ear will have maintained its sugar content while the retail ear may have dropped below the current sugar content of the wholesale ear.”

Rene Grandados in the field.

Corn earworms are the biggest pest concern. With a higher flight of earworms in Nebraska than in most other states, plus acres of field corn surrounding the farm and some organic farming neighbors, corn earworm control requires several approaches.

Moth traps and a crop scout help to monitor earworm pressures. When needed, they will apply pesticides via the center pivot irrigation system. Sweet corn that silks when nearby field corn is not in silk is more vulnerable to corn earworm infestation, as the earworms have nowhere else to lay the eggs. They also use Bt varieties of corn whenever possible. Although the trait doesn’t offer complete control, as not all kernels contain the active trait, it is one tool in their arsenal.

Rust is the primary sweet corn disease concern here, and resistant varieties are utilized. Very rarely are fungicides needed, too. Wildlife isn’t a concern – raccoons can only eat so much sweet corn – so don’t bother the large acreages grown here, and no other wildlife poses any concern, Jackson said.

The sweet corn harvest involves an early morning – 3 a.m. – start time, and a 16-person crew. The prior day, the tops of the corn are cut off to make the hand harvest easier. One person harvests each row of corn. Two conveyor systems, mounted with lights, move the corn directly into plastic macrobins, guided by one employee. A supervisor oversees the pickers, keeping them on pace and ascertaining they are picking quality ears. One person drives the tractor, while another hauls the wagons back and forth from the field to the packing area.

The macrobins, which each contain 720 ears of corn, are coded as soon as the wagons deliver them, and they are weighed and leveled. Hydrocooling occurs as soon as possible after arrival from the field.

“We like to have the sweet corn submerged in ice water within 20 minutes,” using their 140-ton hydrocooler, Jackson said. “If you do not hydrocool your corn immediately, then up to 60 percent of the sugar will convert to starch.”

The bins of corn are submerged in an ice water bath and cooled, then stored in ice in the cooling shed. All corn retains a core temperature of less than 42 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring the utmost freshness.

Getting big

“We certainly didn’t start out with the goal of becoming a large sweet corn grower. If we could make a decent living supporting the three family members involved in this business by sticking to the roadside stands we would, but our location and lack of a large population doesn’t really allow for it,” Jackson said. “We grew because of efficiency of size. In order to justify a hydrocooler and being GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) Food Safety Certified, you have to get to a certain size. To maintain a constant and consistent supply, we had to be larger.”

The GFSI certification requires intense scrutiny of all food safety aspects on the farm. Although sweet corn is considered a low-hazard food, as it is rarely eaten raw and comes in a productive husk, the entire farm is required to follow extensive food safety protocols, and must pass rigid safety requirements.

These include field safety clearances prior to harvest, daily preharvest inspection of the picking crew itself, and lot number coding of products, for traceability. All water, for irrigation and for what’s used in the hydrocooler, is tested several times per year for microorganisms. The hydrocooler water also has to meet pH and free choline levels established for food safety purposes. All equipment and buildings are on a strict sanitation schedule, and every truck used to transport food is inspected and precooled before being able to access the farm’s loading areas.

“Every step of the sweet corn production, from the day the field was prepared to the day the field is disced under at the end of every year, is monitored and documented,” Jackson said. “We complied with all these issues (food safety, infrastructure needs, labor costs, insurance concerns) slowly over the last 10 years, taking on one at a time and adjusting our operation bit by bit every season to meet all these challenges. If we had to scale up and comply with these changes all at once it would be extremely costly and overwhelming.”

Labor needs are now met via the H2A program, with approximately 80 workers required for field operations, packing and warehouse positions each season. Fifty H2A workers are field hands, with 18 packing positions, six in the warehouse and six crew leaders. Nebraska has one of the highest H2A wage rates in the nation, at $13.79 per hour currently. With low unemployment in the region, and competition from growers in neighboring states with lower H2A required wage rates, the cost of doing business doesn’t leave much room for profit.

“Out of all the wholesale products we raise on our farm, sweet corn is the most inconsistent in price, with one of the smallest profit margins. Volatility of the market from season to season makes it extremely difficult to predict,” Jackson said.

In 2016, the price dropped within days after hot weather accelerated maturity, resulting in a glut of sweet corn hitting the market simultaneously. Daniels Produce left more than 10 percent of its sweet corn unharvested, to cut their losses, and sold much more at rock-bottom prices.

Despite these concerns, the family is looking to the future. They will continue to adapt and adjust, changing to meet the needs of the industry, while remaining a family farm.

“Our goals are to remain a family farm, keep our employees happy, and keep the farm productive, efficient and profitable,” Jackson said. “We hope to eventually turn this operation over to the next generation.”

Sweet corn production, on a large scale, requires more infrastructure than the typical roadside stand, where the corn is harvested, displayed and sold within hours of picking. Hydrocooling, selecting varieties optimal for longer term storage, and growing in volumes needed all season long to supply wholesale markets, isn’t an option for most farmers. But it has worked for Daniels Produce, leading the way into the wholesale fresh vegetable production, which has kept this family farm in business.