Vegetables add secondary income for crop farmers despite reduced production
JANESVILLE—The day begins at dawn, before the dew dries and the August heat sets in.
Early workdays are hardly a new concept for farmers. But for roughly four weeks each year, the Gunn family has a different morning routine—one that turns into a daily reunion of four generations.
It's sweet corn season.
Dick O'Leary, the family's 87-year-old patriarch, fires up a tractor and drives into the fields. His son-in-law and grandkids follow him with white buckets in hand as feisty great-grandsons watch from the back of a four-wheeler and a mud-stained golden Lab named Rudy trails behind.
The pickers walk through rows of wet cornstalks and put fresh ears into the tractor's bucket. Then it's time for a family breakfast before taking the day's sweet corn to roadside stands in Janesville.
Some farms make a living off large-scale vegetable farming. Others, such as the O'Leary Gunn farm, do it as a side business to diversify their incomes. But U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show vegetable production is dwindling in Rock and Walworth counties.
Rock County harvested more than 20,000 acres of vegetables in 1987, while Walworth County did about half that, according to the 1987 U.S. agriculture census.
The most recent agriculture census, taken in 2012, showed vegetable acreage dropped to nearly 5,200 acres in Rock and about 1,800 acres in Walworth.
To the untrained observer, there's little difference between sweet corn and field corn, besides the knowledge that one goes on the dinner plate and the other doesn't. But their production, harvests and economics share little in common.
Whether they raise sweet corn, peas or green beans, farmers who grow vegetables must use a different skill set than they use to grow commodity crops such as field corn or soybeans.
Maximizing yields is the top priority for field corn growers. When it comes to sweet corn, taste and appearance are more important, said Joe Lauer, a UW-Madison agronomy professor.Sweet corn seeds are shriveled and cracked compared to field corn. That makes a less resilient plant that is more susceptible to disease, he said.
Sweet corn is less productive than field corn as well. In terms of plants per acre, sweet corn yields about two-thirds the number of crops as field corn, Lauer said.
And perhaps the biggest difference is sweet corn has a much earlier harvest window than field corn, making corn on the cob a summertime staple.
Though sweet corn generally requires more management, harvesting it earlier leads to significantly less nitrogen and herbicide use.
“There are more restrictions because, again, with field corn you have a longer time that crop is in the field,” Lauer said. “There's more time for those products to break down. Not every herbicide available for field corn is available for sweet corn.”
About five or six months pass from the time field corn is planted until it is harvested. That requires farmers to squeeze field corn planting into a narrow time frame in late April or early May, a tall task when many producers have hundreds or thousands of acres of field corn to plant, said Bill Tracy, UW-Madison's agronomy department chairman.
Sweet corn can be planted as early as April and continue until July. Farmers do this in waves to extend the midsummer selling season, leading to such scenes as the recent morning at the O'Leary Gunn farm.
The Gunn family picks ears by hand. Years of experience have taught them how to find high-quality corn through touch, said Mark Gunn, Dick O'Leary's son-in-law.
Sweet corn can be harvested mechanically, but it usually requires specialized equipment that won't damage the plant, Lauer said.
Sweet corn's need for more care and different machinery means a huge acreage discrepancy between it and field corn. Wisconsin grows about 4 million acres of field corn and only about 100,000 acres of sweet corn, Tracy said.
The O'Leary Gunn farm has sold vegetables from the corner of Court and Arch streets in Janesville since 1965. This year, a new stand was added. The family also sells corn at the Janesville and Beloit farmer's markets, Laura Gunn-Fuhrmann said.
But selling fresh is an even smaller slice of the sweet corn market. Of the state's 100,000 sweet corn acres, about 10,000 of those are used for fresh produce, Tracy said.
The rest goes to vegetable processors that turn the corn into frozen or canned products. The Janesville area includes two major processors, Seneca Foods on the city's south side and Birds Eye in Darien.
Farmers who work with processors have contracts that dictate what vegetables will be grown and how many acres are needed. The company dictates the schedule, and the farmer meets the expectations, said town of La Prairie farmer Kurt Leach.
“You're kind of on your own schedule with field crops,” said Leach, who works with Seneca Foods. “With canning crops, generally no one is growing those unless under direct contract with a canning company. You plant when they tell you to plant. Hopefully, you get a few days' warning.”
This year, Leach grew about 90 acres of vegetables and 1,400 acres of field crops. He grew sweet corn last year and peas this year, and he was waiting to learn from Seneca if he would be planting a late crop of green beans, he said.
Seneca provides seeds and harvests the vegetables. Sometimes the company does the planting, too. It's Leach's job to keep the vegetable fields watered and minimize insects, he said.
The revenue per acre is better for vegetables than it is for field corn and soybeans. It's a safeguard against times of low commodity prices, such as right now, Leach said.
Some farmers make their living entirely off large-scale vegetable farming. Many occasionally will grow commodity crops to diversify their incomes, the opposite of commodity farmers who do vegetables on the side, said Paul Mitchell, the director of the Renk Agribusiness Institute at UW-Madison.
The vegetable contracts between processors and farmers depend on commodity prices. If field corn prices are projected to be high, then contracts for sweet corn need to be fruitful as well, he said.
“They are competitive. If you made a ton of money extra, everyone would grow sweet corn instead of field corn,” Mitchell said. “It's more about diversifying your source of income so you're not just doing corn and soybeans. Not all your eggs are in one basket.”
Thousands of vegetable acres have disappeared in the past few decades, so vegetable production in Rock and Walworth counties has a lukewarm future.
Reduced acreage is partly due to more efficient production and getting two seasons of crops on the same land. But it's also because the demand for processed vegetables, the king of the vegetable industry, has weakened, Mitchell said.
“Consumption of those has fallen off a little bit. People have moved toward fresh,” he said. “What you've seen is a slow decline in the industry. As yields go up, you need less acres to meet declining demand.”
And Wisconsin's climate is the ultimate check on any hope of fresh vegetables dominating the state. Consumers want fresh produce year-round. Wisconsin could try mass greenhouse production, but then it would compete with warmer states, Mitchell said.
Still, Wisconsin ranks second nationally in overall vegetable processing, he said.
Total vegetable acreage in the state has remained relatively steady over the past two decades. Combined with the steep drop in Rock and Walworth counties, that means production is just moving elsewhere.
The sandy soils of central Wisconsin are highly suitable for irrigation, making that region an intense vegetable producer, Tracy said.
Mitchell believes the market in Rock and Walworth counties is dominated by farmers whose primary focus is vegetables, rather than those who do it on the side.
But Leach and the Gunns run contrary to that assumption.
For decades, profits from sweet corn at the O'Leary Gunn farm have served as spending money and gone into school funds. Now that the four Gunn siblings have young children of their own, the sweet corn will continue to fund education costs, Gunn-Fuhrmann said.
The O'Leary Gunn farm boasts 4,000 acres of field crops. At 7 acres, sweet corn is a fraction of the family's revenue stream.
But the physical labor among family members, daily breakfasts after picking and a longtime customer base make sweet corn a summer highlight every year.
“The camaraderie of our family is so special to us. We've always been really, really close,” Gunn-Fuhrmann said. “When you're getting up every day, picking corn in muddy fields and selling it all day, I feel like most families might not survive that. But we really enjoy it because it's just us.”