Mark Hayes wades into the corn field, plucks an ear, strips back the shucks, revealing a foot-long cob of perfect glistening white kernels with a few buttery yellow ones mixed in, holds out the ear and commands: “Eat.”
It is, he says, “the sweetest corn you can find anywhere — so good you can eat it raw, right off the stalk. When it's cooked, with a touch of butter and salt, it's sublime.”
Some 25 million-plus ears of the corn grown by Holly Ridge, Miss., farmers and processed in a $3.5 million state-of-the-art facility will be shipped this summer to supermarkets (mostly Wal-Mart) in nearly 30 states.
Ten farmers in the area have joined forces in the Golden Harvest operation that includes 1,400 acres of the Mirai variety, said to be the world's sweetest corn.
“The huge demand for sweet corn in the nation's supermarkets has required that we get into different parts of the country to accommodate our customers who need product the year-round,” says Hayes, president of Twin Garden Sales, Harvard, Ill., which developed the variety. Twin Garden Sales is a preferred vendor to C. H. Robinson Worldwide. an Eden Prairie, Minn. company that markets and distributes fresh produce, including Mirai corn, to grocery retailers, wholesalers, and food service companies. C. H. Robinson works with Delta Harvest, with the help of Twin Gardens and many other growers throughout the U.S., to provide customers with corn 12 months a year.
“We started contracting for sweet corn production seven years ago in the Brandon, Miss., area. It was a very successful small operation, but we needed more volume. ‘Go to the Delta,’ we were told. ‘That's where you'll get the good soils and irrigation you need.’
“We met with growers here who were looking to diversify their operations, and in the first year they produced hundreds of semi-loads of top quality sweet corn. We sold every bit of it.
“We've got good customers, who want a quality product — Wal-Mart is one — and the growers here have given us that. I think any veteran of the corn business would be amazed at what's been accomplished here in just two years.”
Jim Robertson, one of the farmer partners in the operation, says, “Cotton is the crop that has kept us in business here the last 100 years, but with all the uncertainty about farm programs, we hope corn will help sustain us in farming in the years to come. We started last year with four farm families, now 10 are involved, and we hope that number will grow.
“We're employing over 150 people at different times, which helps the local economy.
“We honestly think we have the best sweet corn in the marketplace, and we're convinced we have all the ingredients for continued success — the best land, the best farmers, irrigation know-how, and a first class processing and packing facility.”
John Rodgers Brashier, another partner, says, “Last year, we had 500 acres and this year we nearly tripled that. Every ear is sold.”
Plantings began in early March and were staggered to insure a constant supply. The corn is ready to pick 70 days from planting. Harvest was expected to conclude the first week in August.
“We contract with a professional picking crew out of Florida,” he says. They bring their own ‘mule train’ equipment, a huge machine that slowly moves through the field, lopping the tops off corn plants, while pickers toss ears of corn onto conveyor belts for sorting and packing by workers riding the machine. Filled crates are then stacked on a semi-truck being towed by the mule train.
From the field, the trucks take the corn immediately to the processing plant.
“When corn is picked, the sugars start breaking down into starches,” Brashier says. “Heat is the enemy of corn, so we run it through a chiller tunnel, where it's washed in 4,000-gallon per minute, 34-degree water for 30 to 35 minutes. Then it goes to cooling rooms, which are maintained at 34 degrees, until it's ready for shipment.”
The corn can be stored in the cooler for up to two weeks with no loss of quality.
Roy Nichols, plant manager, says corn is packed in crates for bulk sales and in labeled bags for more upscale purchasers. Operations at the packing shed are monitored constantly to insure that counts are accurate and that every ear meets quality standards.
For shipment, the corn is loaded on trucks and iced down. “We have one of the largest ice-production facilities in the state, turning out 60,000 to 80,000 pounds per day,” Brashier says. From Holly Ridge, the corn goes to regional distribution centers, and within 48 hours it's in supermarkets.
“This operation is the result of a lot of dreams, money, and hard work,” says Mark Hayes, including efforts by state government officials, Mississippi State University, bankers, and others.
Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell said, “This is the kind of enterprise we like to see, where farmers can fill a need and diversify their operations.”