Hawai‘i Corn


You can’t beat the flavor of a crisp, golden ear of sweet corn. The quintessential food of summer, corn thrives with hot temperatures and long hours of daylight. “Knee high by the Fourth of July” is the acclaimed benchmark for the growing corn stalk, which reaches for the sky to catch the wind for pollination.

Once the fully formed cobs have filled out their husks and the top silks turn brown, corn lovers ready their pots of boiling water. They run outside to the garden, pluck the ripe ears, husk and then plop them in the waiting pot. The routine hails from the age-old belief corn is at its sweetest and most nutritious when just picked. Simply smothered in salt, pepper and butter, your favorite topping, or just plain—you can’t stop munching from end-to-end until you’ve had your fill!

While fresh sweet corn can be had in Hawai‘i, it’s not available on the scale you’d find in the Midwest. The bulk of Hawai‘i’s corn today is planted as seed corn while local sweet corn is sparingly found at farm stands, farmers markets and grocers.

Historic records show corn production in Hawai‘i started in the mid-19th century when the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society (RHAS) promoted the farming of various commodities. In 1853, the growing of corn was reported as “erratic” as farmers were investigating the best “timing for sowing seeds” and battling plant ravaging insects.

There was also optimism for growing corn in the islands ac-cording to “Hawai‘i’s Forgotten Crop: Corn on Maui, 1851-1951” by Dr. Dawn Duensing. She wrote RHAS grain chair William H. Rice found successful experimentation with corn proving there was “little doubt” corn would “flourish in every district on every island” if planted at the correct time of year. Farmers must have taken this advice to heart as in 1865 the Pacific Commercial Ad-vertiser’s agriculture review reported 29,853 pounds of corn was exported from the islands.

The Makawao Corn Mill ground its first cracked corn in 1892 on land leased from Haleakala Ranch Company. A 1903 Maui map identifies a wide belt on the leeward slope of Haleakala as “good agricultural land planted in corn, Irish potatoes, etc.” Corn was also grown in Haiku where rain was plentiful and in cool-clime Waimea on Hawai‘i Island.

While corn was a highly desirable food for human and livestock consumption, it had problems competing with pineapple, which was growing in profitability and suited to Hawai‘i’s climate. Other challenges included efficiently curing or drying the corn in Ha-wai‘i’s humidity before it was eaten by insects. After a boom of  increased patriotic production during WWI, corn farming declined and mills closed. By the 1950s, Waimea’s Parker Ranch grew half of the territory’s 625 acres of corn.

Attracted by year-round growing conditions, seed companies came to Hawai‘i during the following decade. DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International started producing genetically modifi ed corn here in the 1990s. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the 2015-16 value of Hawai‘i’s seed corn was $147 million, making up 97 percent of the state’s total seed crop.

At Southside Farming Company, Kyle Studer is farming 30 acres of sweet corn above Pahala town on Hawai‘i Island. Since January, he has planted three-fourths of an acre weekly with a goal to grow 40 acres of corn in the course of a year. Studer acquired the farm from Ellis and Sokah Hester; the couple has successfully grown corn there for the last 15 years.

A former Hamakua organic veggie farmer, Studer grows non-GMO corn, a bi-color sweet variety that does well in his climate niche of sunny, warm days and cool nights at a 1,500-foot elevation. He uses “best farming practices” and rotates plantings of diff er-ent squashes and cover crops to control insects, weeds and add organic matter to the soil.

To accommodate the shorter days of winter, which result in less growth and smaller ears, the native Texan puts wider spacing between the cornrows “to accommodate the lower angle of the sun.”

The farmer says a challenge in growing corn is the corn earworm; the caterpillar hatches in the corn silk and eats its way down into the ear. He uses organic methods of control to target only the worm.

“My goal is to get the farm to be organic but I have to make it work dollar for dollar,” notes Studer, who uses conventional fertilizer.

Studer’s newly branded K‘au Sweet Corn is sold on Hawai‘i Island through Adaptations, at all Island Natural Markets and various farmers markets. Munch away!

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