CONCORD — Take an early morning drive past almost any stretch of New England farmland right now and you may see ears of corn flying through the air into the back of a nearby wagon. It’s the height of picking season and growers are harvesting from the stalks as fast as they can.
Steve Verrill of Verrill Farm, who just turned 80, describes harvesting with four of his best pickers. He starts at 6 a.m. on a tractor, pulling a flatbed behind it. The pickers work by hand, and each takes 1,000 ears an hour. Verrill Farm’s 200 acres have been in the family since 1922. The ears are sold at his own farm stand and at other markets, and many go to restaurant kitchens.
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As Verrill moves between the rows, he points out full-grown ears, covered in bright green husks with brown tipped silk
peeking out, on stalks 6 feet high. In other rows, the stalks meet us at eye level, with bright green silk spilling out of smaller husks; those ears will be ready for harvesting in a few weeks. Verrill grows bicolor varieties, which are the most popular in New England. Long known as Butter and Sugar, they now have names like Mirai, Trinity, and Temptation.
Sweet corn, a summertime staple of New England clambakes and backyard barbecues, is piling up at local farm stands, where some customers stop by daily to get the freshest corn. As soon as it comes in, “people go crazy,” says George Hamilton, extension field specialist for food and agriculture at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension in Goffstown, N.H. But traditional varieties are constantly changing as new hybrids with longer lasting, sweeter flavor, and more reliable harvests replace them.
Newer varieties last longer because they are bred to tackle the age-old problem of sugars changing to starch shortly after the corn is picked. Ideally, you should eat corn the day it’s picked; if you have to keep it, shuck it, wrap it tightly, and refrigerate for two to three days (see related story).
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How to get the most out of your corn
Silver Queen, a white corn, and Butter and Sugar, the first bicolor, used to be requested by name from customers. But the flavor of those early varieties was fleeting, some turning starchy within a day of harvesting. On old-time farms, mothers started the water for corn, then sent someone to pick it, so it was fresh when it hit the pot.
Improved breeding has changed all that. “The sugar in the corn does not break down as fast, so we have a longer shelf life,” says Hamilton. In addition to understanding growing characteristics, he says, we know more about how the individual varieties of corn react after harvesting.
Verrill says the new varieties emphasize a tender kernel and a blend of corn flavor and sweetness, where a cob like the original Butter and Sugar “was a very small ear and didn’t have the flavor that some of the new hybrids do.”
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Steve Verrill, 80, of Verrill Farm in Concord grows corn on 200 acres.
Today, consumers typically don’t know names of corn, just that it has to be fresh and native. When corn comes in from outside New England, it has been picked at least a day or two before it hits our markets and the sugar-to-starch process is happening on the way, says Hamilton.
At Idylwilde Farms in Acton, people are looking for corn that was grown locally, says Joe Napoli, one of the fourth-generation members of the family-owned business. “That’s the main drive,” he says. Idylwilde grows about 20 acres of its own corn and buys more from area farms. Local corn for sale in Idylwilde’s store was picked that morning, he says.
In the field, Verrill demonstrates how to tell if corn is at its peak. He feels the tip of a cob from a row he’ll harvest the following day. The kernels are filled in and plump under the green husks. He peels the husks and silks back and tastes the kernels at both ends to make sure the top of the cob has the same sweet flavor as the bottom. “The flavor comes to the base of the ear first,” he says, “and it takes it about one or two days to move to the tip of the ear.”
As for cooking, confusion prevails with boiling times varying from one to 10 minutes. Verrill recommends steaming for 1½ to 2 minutes.
But with corn straight from the field, cooking may not be necessary. Napoli, who grew up eating raw corn in Idylwilde’s fields for breakfast during harvest season, can’t recall the last time he had an ear that was cooked. Fresh, local corn is that good.
Valerie Ryan can be reached at [email protected]