Sweet corn destined for the freezer or the canned food aisle has been steadily decreasing over the last three decades, according to a new study published in HortScience. Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) analyzed a 27-year data set spanning 20,000 sweet corn fields across four states. Between 1992 and 2018, this data set tracked things such as yield, acres planted and hybrid lifespan.
Over that time, processing sweet corn trends have seen an overall reduction in acres planted and in production. This study looked at trends independent of causes, but the researchers’ previous findings suggest a direct link to climate change, since higher temperatures were associated with drops in yield. The study also says that declines could also be partially consumer-driven. Since processing corn is grown for canning or freezing, not eaten fresh on the cob, a consumer preference for fresh corn could be contributing to the waning numbers.
The fields were grouped into five categories based on region and water sourcing—Illinois irrigated, Illinois rainfed, Washington irrigated, Minnesota rainfed and Wisconsin irrigated. The researchers saw a decline in acres planted in every category, and Wisconsin’s fields were the only ones to see an increase in yield. By the end of the data set, Wisconsin was producing more corn on less acreage than at the beginning of data collection. Although this study didn’t look at causation, this could possibly be linked to those fields being irrigated instead of rainfed.
“When you have some kind of extreme weather events, whether it’s excessive rainfall, excessive temperatures or temperatures and drought, those yield deviations are greatest under rainfed conditions,” says Martin Williams, ecologist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and corresponding author of this study. Rainfed fields were more directly influenced by swings in the weather, particularly when it came to water supply. For example, the rainfed fields of Illinois saw the sharpest declines.
This is a big deal, says Williams, because the most important thing when it comes to processing sweet corn is consistency.
“You want those folks producing phenomenal yields and …know that they’re going to be able to deliver that,” says Williams. “(Instead of) something that deviates from what they’re expecting for the season.”
One potential avenue toward that consistency is continuing to improve the stress tolerance of the cultivars used. Commercial sweet corn operations use hybrid corn, which can be bred to meet environmental obstacles with more stability.
“You don’t necessarily need a flashy hybrid,” says Williams. “You want what they call ‘workhorse hybrids’ that do well, are less influenced by environmental swings and more hardwired to perform at a certain level.”
The cultivars in use now won’t necessarily be the ones performing well decades down the road, he says.
“It gives you a little pause—what do we need to be doing now so we can ensure profitability and productivity into the future?”