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Revised April 2022
Sweet corn belongs to the same species as field corn (Zea mays) but has a genetic mutation (or mutations) that results in the corn kernels storing relatively more sugar than commonly grown field corn. Varieties with this mutation were first discovered and grown in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. The first commercial variety of sweet corn was reportedly introduced in 1779. To capture maximum sweetness, sweet corn is harvested before it fully matures while sugar content is still high.
Currently there are sweet corn varieties/hybrids with genes for differing levels of sweetness, differing colors (white, yellow or bicolor) and genetic transformations for herbicide resistance and insect control. Genetic advances have also improved the quality of both fresh and processed products. As an example, there are supersweet varieties that offer longer shelf life, extended marketing windows and the delivery of higher-quality products throughout the year. Sweet corn can be processed and canned or frozen or sold in the fresh market. Though most wait to harvest full grown sweet corn, a small market does exist for the fully edible unhusked baby corn.
In terms of production and value, sweet corn is the second largest processing crop, surpassed only by tomatoes. Sweet corn is grown in all 50 states. However, Florida, Washington, Georgia, California, New York and Oregon are the largest producers of all types of sweet corn. The production of sweet corn for processing is heavily concentrated in the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest with Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin being the leading producers. The total value of the 2021 sweet corn crop was estimated to be in excess of $774 million. Of that amount, 75 percent was produced for the fresh market and 25 percent for the processing market. Processing sweet corn production (both frozen and canned) in 2021 had a total crop value of $193 million (NASS 2022).
Since sweet corn is cross pollinated, varieties with differing traits need to be isolated from one another to avoid cross contamination and loss of the desired traits and from field corn and popcorn. Site selection for producing sweet corn is similar to that of field corn, though any drought during cob development can significantly reduce the value of the crop. Insect pests can be a major problem, particular if they feed on the ear. Therefore, insect populations should be monitored and spray programs implemented as needed. Hybrids with the Bt traits (GMOs) may be helpful in reducing many insect pest problems and in reducing the need for insecticides. Staggering planting dates and using hybrids of differing maturity length can help ensure a steady supply of produce.
Fresh sweet corn is typically sold to wholesale markets, supermarkets, restaurants, at farmer’s markets or roadside stands. In wholesale marketing, producers often contract with a shipper at a predetermined price. When shipping the sweet corn directly to the wholesale market, farmers may be subject to daily spot markets which can be highly seasonal. Marketing cooperatives may be available in some regions that help spread out price fluctuations. Direct marketing to local retailers can be profitable but requires time to make contacts and they often prefer delivery over an extended period of time. Sweet corn production for the fresh market can be a profitable labor-intensive option for growers with a small acreage provided they can secure a good market.
Processing sweet corn is almost exclusively marketed through the use of contracts that are generally offered through a variety of brokers. Processing plants often produce both branded and private-labeled products. As is the case with many agribusiness sectors, consolidations and mergers have produced much fluidity to ownership structures of companies that process corn.
Sweet Corn Crop Guide, Texas AgriLife Extension.
Sweet Corn Production, 2005, PennState Extension.
Sweet Corn Production, 1989, The Corn Crop, NCH-43, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.