on August 3, 2013 - 11:15 PM
Fresh sweet corn boiling in a pot on the stove brings back fond memories for Sue Scott. ¶ “The whole process of making corn on the cob triggers something in your past. A memory of your past – it triggers that time with family and friends,” she said. ¶ It’s summertime, the time to celebrate, she said as she prepared dinner at her West Falls home. ¶ “I think that’s why we embrace our corn on the cob. It’s because our summers are so short. There’s milestones you look forward to, and I think corn on the cob is one of them.” ¶ This night is no different: dinner with a few family members and friends. Salmon from Alaska, where her two sons and their father spend part of the year as commercial fishermen. Chicken sizzling on the grill next to the salmon. Fruit salad with mango, papaya, pineapple, cilantro, red onion and a jalapeno pepper; garlic bread and stuffed peppers. And corn on the cob. ¶ This corn has grown from a dark seed the size of a small pebble, planted in rich Eden Valley soil 100 days ago. It traveled 33 miles from the field off Bley Road to a roadside vegetable stand in Holland, before landing on Scott’s table in her century-old house.
It’s a journey you could say started thousands of years ago in what is now Mexico, when Native Americans saved kernels from the precursor to maize, planted them, cared for them, then picked the ears and ate the corn. Closer to home, corn, to the Iroquois, is one of the Three Sisters, with beans and squash, cherished gifts from the Creator.
To farmers in Eden, corn has been a staple, and a defining crop, for more than 100 years. The town inaugurated a festival paying homage to the grain half a century ago: Today marks the last day of the 50th Eden Corn Festival.
It’s a crop grown by farming families, the Agles and the Henrys and the Zittels.
George and Paul Zittel’s grandfather, George, bought the land off Route 62 in 1897. He passed it down to his son, Amos. Now grandfathers themselves, George and Paul have given the reins of Amos Zittel & Sons to their sons, Bill, Dave, Mark and Kevin, and they have worked in the fields beside their grandsons as well.
Amos Zittel took his sons, George and Paul, into the business with him after they graduated from Cornell University more than 45 years ago.
“In 1975 we formed a corporation,” Paul Zittel said. “The big thing George and I had to decide when we came back is what do we want to be. Do we want to be the biggest, or do we want to be the best with limited acreage?”
Because they value family and extended family – many of the Eden farming families have ties going back generations – they chose the latter.
“It was an attitude. I knew what it meant to me that my dad said to me I’m going to sell the farm to you and I’m going to work for you. I know what it means to the boys when they’re in charge – and they are, they’re 100 percent in charge,” Paul Zittel said. “At age 65 we retired, quote unquote. That’s why I’m here. Then they hire us back.”
While the amount of land farmed in New York has decreased, the production has increased. Farmers in Western New York help produce about $4.5 billion in agriculture goods a year in New York State. When the manufacture of food, beverage and related products is included, the impact of farming was $34.2 billion in 2010, according to a report written by Cornell University associate professor Todd Schmit and professor emeritus Nelson L. Bills.
One of the innovations the Zittels helped pioneer with the Cooperative Extension was planting corn under sheets of plastic, which speeds the growing process.
Two generations ago, healthy corn used to be “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”
No more. Farmers aim to pick their first corn by the Fourth of July, and five years out of 10, they hit that mark, Bill Zittel said. This year they did not, because of the cold spring, but they were selling corn by July 6. The first corn often is a little smaller than mid-season corn, but it also commands a higher price. And providing the first corn of the season keeps customers coming back throughout the season.
The corn that landed on Sue Scott’s plate, called 278 Super Sweet Bicolor Corn, was planted April 15, among the last of the season planted under plastic. The early planting is made possible by plowing the field in the fall.
“If you fall-plow, then when the ground breaks and it gets to be two days of warmer weather, not raining, the first 6 inches or so of ground is dry enough to get equipment on,” Bill Zittel said.
The plastic acts as a greenhouse; it keeps the seed warm so it can germinate, even though the temperatures dip into the 20s or 30s overnight in early April. The Zittels planted 34 acres of corn under plastic, and 41 acres on bare ground, once the ground warmed up. They planted different varieties, with different maturation times. That way there is a steady supply of corn throughout the season.
One worker drives the tractor pulling the planter, which adds fertilizer, plants the corn, covers it with plastic and adds herbicide for weed control between the rows. Another farmhand makes sure edges of the plastic are buried under the dirt. The seeds are planted about 8 inches apart in two rows along a mound.
Each acre of corn needs 1 inch of rain or irrigation per week to thrive. June’s rain and July’s 90-degree weather helped this corn to grow. But there’s always some threat to the crops, either too much rain, or not enough, or insects that could damage a crop.
Bug control has come a long way. Instead of relying solely on pesticides, marigolds are planted on the end of rows of pepper plants, to attract the “good” insects that devour the bad ones.
There are several types of worms that can damage corn, and Cornell Cooperative Extension monitors the insect population with traps on the Zittel farm and throughout Western New York. Fresh Market specialist Robert Hadad checks the traps weekly. He can tell when the females will be laying eggs, and help farmers determine when to use pesticides most effectively.
“It’s a way of eliminating wasteful, costly and environmentally unfriendly sprays,” Hadad said.
Some worms can damage the tassel area, preventing pollination. And if it doesn’t pollinate, there will be no corn. Corn grows into a stalk, and an ear forms on the stalk, with silk coming out of the ear. Once the silk is pollinated, the kernels will form and the corn will be ready to eat in 10 days. Each silk connects to one kernel of corn, and there is one good ear of corn per plant.
Most still pick it by hand, although some local farmers are using a mechanized picking machine.
“Sweet corn is a very difficult thing, dollars and cents-wise,” Bill Zittel said.
Innovations in other crops have helped farmers increase the yield, but not on corn.
“Corn, it’s still the same density that it was 100 years ago. The varieties are better. They taste better, but you can’t get any more per plant,” he said.
Nearly 60 work at the Zittel farm, including 20 year-round employees, and 40 seasonal workers – high school and college students and migrants.
Keeping a supply of workers is not as easy as it might seem.
Last year the farm had a hard time getting enough workers to pick at the height of the season. It may have been that migrants who usually swing through the area to pick apples and peaches in Niagara County didn’t come because the fruit crop was damaged in the spring. Whatever the reason, they only had those workers they could house on their property, which was not enough for the harvest.
Some of the resolution to the worker problem could come through immigration reform.
“We need to have an immigration policy that is fair to the farmers, fair to the workers,” said Julie Suarez, director of public policy for the New York Farm Bureau. “It’s not likely we’re going to see a lot of domestic workers take a lot of seasonal jobs.”
She said most people cannot support themselves and their families on a seasonal job that lasts two or three months, but they could if they take a series of jobs like migrant workers.
“We’re either going to import our labor or we’re importing our food,” Suarez said.
Back at the farm, customers have called in their orders through the night.
“They know they have to have it in by 5 a.m., because they know I’m putting stuff together and I’m here by 6. They know they’re not going to get it if they don’t get the call in,” Bill Zittel said.
It is 5:45 a.m., and workers start to gather at the Webster Road barn to get their assignments. A week ago at this time the temperature was a sultry 73 degrees, and that was the coolest the farmhands would be all day. This day it was cooler, 59, as migrants and students hand in their time sheets.
The Zittels gather in the office and go over how much lettuce and corn needs to be picked, and how much will go to Eden Valley Growers, a farm cooperative, to be hydro-cooled in cold water to preserve freshness for shipping. Much of the corn grown goes to supermarkets such as Tops and Wegmans.
Farmhands find out which field they are headed to, get into pickup trucks and a van, and head to the fields at 6:06 a.m. By 6:15 a.m., two groups of four are silently picking, their heads not quite visible below the 6-foot high stalks. One holds the bag that will be filled with five dozen ears; the others pick six at a time and shove them in the bag. They work their way down the rows of corn, leaving the filled bags on the ground between the rows to be carried away on a flatbed trailer.
The field will be plowed under by nightfall, with sorghum planted for a local dairy farmer. The sorghum is part of the necessary crop rotation. The dairy farmer makes the first cutting for his cows, and the roots provide dense organic material needed to revitalize the field.
By 7:38 a.m., the tractor is hauling the corn to the red barn at the top of the hill on Bley Road.
The roadside stand
Tina Fronckowiak has arrived in her SUV – her pickup is being repaired – and Bill Zittel loads the bags into her vehicle by 8 a.m. She is getting 15 bags –75 dozen ears – to sell from her roadside stand on Route 16 in Holland.
She makes the trip daily from the end of May, when the first strawberries are out, through Labor Day.
“I’ve been going to Zittels for 19 years, every day for the last 19 years,” she said.
Her husband, Tom, who used to own Barney’s GMC in Holland, started the stand in front of his parents’ house one mile south of Route 400 as a hobby in 1980. That year he sold corn he had grown, which did well, so he expanded.
“We went from just corn to everything,” said Tina Fronckowiak, who moved to Holland in 1971.
She worked at Giuseppe’s Restaurant on Route 16 for years, and bought the restaurant 12 years ago. Her husband, who died in 1996, had gone to the Clinton-Bailey market daily for corn and other vegetables and fruit. He met Amos Zittel there, who suggested he come to the Eden farm for the produce.
Today the stand he started is a familiar local landmark across from Aurora Collision, with its small roadside sandwich board announcing “Bread and Butter CORN.” The stand is a converted school bus with a new roof and a green painted wood exterior. The corn is stored in a smaller, air-conditioned shed behind the stand. She will sell 25 bags of corn on Saturdays and Sundays.
Kaitlyn Bame, 22, who graduated in May from Fredonia State College, sets up displays of vegetables as she has for the past seven years. As pickup trucks and 18-wheelers, vans and sedans, whiz by at 55 mph, Fronckowiak talks about her customers.
“People who buy corn off a fruit stand, they eat it for dinner,” she said. “I have some customers who will stop every day for four ears.”
Sue Scott remembers buying corn from Fronckowiak’s stand when it was just a table with a plastic covering. She stopped late one recent afternoon to pick up a half dozen ears for a small dinner with her sister, nephew and his father, and her daughter and daughter’s friend.
“My issue is always when is it done,” Scott said, recalling her mother used to boil corn for 20 minutes. “It should explode when you bite into it. It should just pop. I think years ago everybody overcooked everything.”
That may be because older varieties of corn were not as sweet and tender as what is being grown today. They had to be purchased daily because the freshness did not last. Current varieties keep their sweetness longer, and don’t need to be cooked as long.
Husking the corn was a family effort with Scott, her daughter, Gabby Kramer, and her friend, Morgan Burke, in the backyard. Taykla, the family’s 5-year-old rottweiler, loped around the yard.
Scott piled the ears in a pot, poured cold water on them and placed it on the stove. She threw in a scoop of sugar, a splash of milk and a dash of salt – a recipe handed down by her grandmother – then turned on the burner.
“That’s all we do. Then you let it boil, you boil it until you can smell it. As soon as you smell it, that smell of cooked corn, then it’s done. Too many people overcook corn. You can’t overcook it,” Scott said.
Marinated chicken roasted on the gas grill next to two large salmon fillets, and stuffed peppers warmed in the oven, making way for garlic bread. Scott, a waitress at the Roycroft Inn and the Dog Bar, enjoys dinner parties.
After the corn boiled for 6 minutes, she turned off the burner. The chicken and salmon joined salads and bread in the dining room. And 36 hours after it was picked, 2,436 hours after it was planted, the corn was on the table, earning rave reviews.
“It’s plump and juicy and fresh, it brings you back home,” Scott said. “It brings you back to the time that you shared with your families. It brings you back to that time in your life that everyone remembers.”