From the farm to your table: Taking a look at Arizona sweet corn

With nearly 19,000 farms across Arizona, agriculture is a top contributor to the state's economy.

In fact, a lot of produce in Arizona grocery stores is supplied by local farmers, and due to differences in elevation across the state, there’s almost always something that’s in season, even if it may be hard at times to find out what exactly is in season for a particular time of the year.

We recently visited Mortimer Farms for some sweet corn.

Farm details work needed to grow corn

To get that perfect, buttery cob on plates each summer and fall, it all begins months earlier.

"We plan all winter long," said Ashlee Mortimer with Mortimer Farms. "Get the fields ready, test the soil, decide where we're going to plant each crop that's going to be the most productive area and have the best yield and have the best crop, and then we plant."

Ashlee said harvesting sweet corn can be difficult.

"Every stalk of corn produces one to two good years of sweet corn, and as soon as those one or two good years are harvested, that stalk is no longer going to produce more sweet corn, and every area that we plant on the same day is harvested within the same week of each other," said Ashlee. "And so, we want to plant blocks in order to extend our growing season, so we're not just harvesting for one week, we're harvesting from multiple months."

And then, there's the time between planting and the harvest.

"It all starts with the stalk, and its development during the season. Here at Mortimer Farms, they know very well that temperatures play a big role in getting that perfect ear of corn," said Ashlee. "Sweet corn likes the summer heat, likes the temperature to be warm. Keeps those roots warm, keep the sunshine for photosynthesis."

Thanks to the moderate temperatures of the high desert around Mortimer Farms in Mayer, their corn can thrive from the last frost of spring to the first frost of fall. That means sweet corn stays in season through mid-October to late-October.

"We're looking for a few different things to make sure that that stalk is ready to be harvested and those ears are ready," said Ashlee. "We're looking for the tassel and the color of the corn, and also feeling that ear to make sure it was pollinated correctly."

Weather can be a wildcard at times

Arizona had a very cool June in 2023, and Mortimer Farms also recorded their latest frost ever.

"When we had that June 23 frost, the tassel was damaged," said Ashlee. "We thought that it would grow out of that damage, but it wasn’t pollinated correctly, so we had a lot of ears that were half pollinated, or the ones that were pollinated didn’t have that flavor profile that we’re looking for."

That meant Mortimer Farm's yield in 2023 was lower and later than usual.

"Pollinated correctly": What does that mean?

If one has ever shucked corn, one will know how tedious the cleaning process can be. Those little strings on the corn, however, they’re actually pretty important.

"This is the silk, and the silk is also aiding in the pollination process," said Ashlee. "Every silk is directly connected to a kernel of corn, and as each kernel is pollinated through the silk, it is growing and establishing each individual kernel."

What are corn farmers looking for, come harvest time?

Ashlee talked about what they look for in corns, when the time comes for them to be harvested.

"You want to look at the top of the ear, at that same silk. The darker the silk is, the more ripe it is, and the closer it is to harvest," said Ashlee. "So you can tell that silk is very dark, so this is a very good ear, ready to harvest. You can also feel the ear and see if it’s been nice and pollinated. This is a beautifully pollinated ear. You can tell it wasn’t pollinated all the way to the top, but still a gorgeous ear of corn."

It's this level of attention to detail that sets the farm apart from others.

"The closer you are to the vine, the tastier that food is," said Ashlee. "The flavor profile is extended, and is there at the last little bit of the ripening process, and so if you're harvesting something before it's ripe and trucking it across the country, that flavor profile isn't as extensive as if you were eating it right from the place that it was harvested."

What should we do with the corn?

Brett Vyver with Mortimer Farms made a dish that features sweet corn, alongside other ingredients.

"Obviously, we're focusing on sweet corn, but we want to focus on a bunch of the other cool stuff at the farmhouses and in season right now as well. So, some of Mortimer's pork, onion, cilantro, roasted green chile sunflowers,"  said Vyver. "So the idea here is that this is corn is going to be kind of the topping for the pork."

Vyver walked us through the process of making the dish.

"First, since it takes the longest, I'm going to season the pork and season the pan," said Vyver. "The pork, I'm going to put together a little relish to put on top of it. Celebrate thing, like all things sweet corn. The sear, the caramelization. So we get a little bit of color coming on the corn, and like that caramelization on it, bringing the sugars out."