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Lend Me Your Ear (Where to Find the Best Corn)


“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”     Dwight D. Eisenhower

4 dozen handpicked ears per basket

Lend me your ear and I’ll tell you all I learned about corn from the people who grow the best butter and sugar corn in our region and beyond:  Barkers Farm and Farm Stand, North Andover, MA on Rt. 125.  The Barkers know what they’re talking about, now under the guidance of the 10th generation (that’s the real Gen X!), this land has been cultivated by the family since 1642.  As a comparison, the town wasn’t incorporated until 1646.  The Barkers maintain a true Yankee farm focusing on their produce without sliding into the “farm as theme park” modus operandi that others in the area have resorted to to pay the bills.  It’s not that I begrudge the other farms their livelihoods, I’m pleased that any land offers me the option to buy local, and I attend a variety of special weekends that they host, it’s just that I have to wonder what percentage of thought goes into the crops when the real money appears to be generated by the gift shops, the feed-the-llama pellets and dispensers, and the next surprise guest or event. 

Barkers Farm Stand North Andover MA

The exact varieties of corn the Barker’s plant are a secret.  But on April 15 every year they start to plant four or so different versions of butter and sugar corn (yellow and white kernels on the same ear).  The different types allow for earlier and later harvests to span a long season.   The proof as they say is in the pudding and for kicks here is a link to a Fresh Corn Pudding recipe.  Note:  Double the corn for best results.  http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/fresh-corn-pudding/detail.aspx

Raw Corn & Tomato Salad with Basil and Olive Oil

How can I possibly convey how good this corn is?  I can only tell you that I am more in demand as a dinner guest when it is in season (July 21 or so, through October unless there’s an early frost), and that hosts have asked me to bring some along to areas as remote as Wellesley and the Berkshires after sampling it.  I can tell you I eat it raw off the cob or in a salad of fresh tomatoes, basil, raw corn cut from the cob and a little olive oil, salt and pepper.  I can tell you that at the last dinner party where I brought the corn, average consumption per capita was three ears.  And I can tell you that I never need to worry about my sister’s birthday gift; her birthday is July 21, and for what must be close to a decade, she’s asked for Barkers corn. 

After badgering the Barkers to allow me to photograph their fields and process,

Russell "Barker" Whitney

and get them a bit of the exposure I feel they deserve (this is not a social media farm), I finally got to go.  In the fields at 8:00 am (according to George Barker (Gen IX), the young picking crew can’t really get their act together before then), the team consists of about 7 people; 4 pickers and 3 carriers, all local neighborhood kids and at least one supervisor:  either George himself or the man who came to pick 43 years ago and never left, the son George never had, Russell “Barker” Whitney. 

After the most beautiful, sunshine, sparkling morning, could I know what

Corn Carriers

picking is all about? I can afford to wax poetic about it because I didn’t pick. I walked through fields of corn higher than my head, taking pictures and chatting with Diane Barker (Gen X) and the crew while they attempted to work around me.  It is so pretty, I oozed amazement….”Do you see how beautiful this is, how lucky you are?”  And they tote hefty baskets each holding 4 dozen large ears, forever mindful not to trample the next day’s harvest, dodging mosquitoes, hoisting and picking for hours where I lasted about 30 minutes.  They do not shriek and flinch as a speaker with distressed bird calls, blasts at irregular intervals to keep the marauders at bay.  They work pretty much non-stop unless asked to stand still for a photo op.  I sense that they think the whole photo thing is a bit silly; they are much more comfortable talking about the crop than themselves.  

Too young to pick, wait til silk is brown

BARKERS EAR-FUL OF CORN FACTS

 According to the Barkers, machine picking is neither efficient nor profitable.  A machine does not gauge the peak of ripeness, and it cuts an entire row at once.  The corn then needs to be sorted for readiness, with the undeveloped ears discarded.  Picking by hand allows each row to be harvested more than once, creating the greatest yield and best tasting corn. 

Corn is a grain, more like wheat than a tomato. 

The male part of the plant is the tassel

The number of ears removed from a stalk is typically one, though with hand-harvesting, a second smaller ear, may also be harvested. 

The male part of the plant is the tassel on top.The little seed looking things on the tassel are the corn equivalent of sperm that drop down on the silk and 15-20 days later (depending on variety) you have a harvestable ear.

Despite the hype, crows are not decimators of the

Corn ruined by red-winged black birds

corn, nor are deer.  The worst of the lot are the red-winged black-birds who swoop in in huge flocks, tearing through the husks to stuff their ravenous beaks; then they fly off.  (I’m guessing to chew without teeth). Aptly named, the  birdbrains forget which ear they started on, so move on, letting the last one dry out and defacing the next.  Deer merely nibble the end of the corn silk without causing damage to the harvest except maybe trampling a few stalks

Corn that’s “as high as an elephant’s eye” will most likely be used for fodder or a corn maze, aka a “maize maze”.  It is not grown for human consumption.

 The ratio of strand of corn silk to kernel is 1:1.  

Fresh picked corn

If you husk the corn at the point of purchase, the corn’s flavor will be diminished by the time you bring it home.  Buy an extra ear or two, and husk it at home right before dropping it into a pot of boiling water for 3 minutes.  Taking your chances and leaving the corn sealed in their protective husk until the very last moment increases the flavor and texture quality exponentially, as does limiting the cooking time.

 CORN COOKING MYTHS

 Boiling the water with an internal husk leaf or two intensifies the flavor. Sorry, Mom, not true.

 Adding sugar to the water is the best way to get sweet corn….no again, the best way to get sweet corn is to buy exceptional corn; my preference is obviously Barkers.

 BRAIN4RENT’S TAKE ON CORN ON COB INNOVATION

My Butter Boy

The only corn improvement in my lifetime has been the butter distribution

method called “Butter Boy”.  I was a very early adopter of this item and distributed them widely as hostess gifts (along with my corn stash), and though it was received with skepticism, all are receiving regular use.  After inputting the butter into the Butter Boy, the mess is all but removed from buttering your corn.  I found the first Butter Boy years ago among innovative kitchen gadgets online, but it is now readily available along with a Butter Girl at Target.com and BedBathandBeyond.com http://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/product.asp?SKU=13806640  

Barkers Farm Stand

THE FARM STAND at BARKERS FARM

Nothing fancy here, just beautiful produce and bouquets, plus pick your own flowers and apples in season (Paula Reds are ready now, the other varieties will be ready for picking on Labor Day.  Perfect for smaller kids and people who have trouble walking, the trees are close to the parking area and are pruned to bear fruit closer to the ground.)  There are a few vendor-supplied items like a Vermont-made

Paula Red Apples ready for picking

mozzarella to accompany Barker tomatoes and basil, a few sweet treats, honey, soda and water, and for convenience  some well-selected products from other farms.  All are thoroughly labeled with hand written signs.  They also offer a line of privately canned Barkers fruits and veggies using their own produce, though not canned on site.  Plus home landscapers, it’s a great place to buy mulch.

Barker Gens 10 & 9 in flower garden. Mom makes the bouquets, Diane graces the counter. Dad still picks corn.

If I find one, I always want to align myself with a superior product or group of people.  And I found both at Barker’s Farm.  There is a sign on the wall that says “Bless This Farm”, and after meeting the wonderful Barkers and revelling in the harvests that their fields yield, I think that prayer was answered.

 ©2011 by Alison Colby-Campbell

14 thoughts on “Lend Me Your Ear (Where to Find the Best Corn)”

  1. Geezzzzzzzzz Alison,…… you have me craving corn so bad right now that I’m ready to jump in my car and head on up to Barkers Farm! Corn is definately my favorite food of all….and I don’t eat it hot with butter like most. I cook it, refrigerate it, and eat it cold the following day! Yummmm! Double the taste, and 1/2 the calories. Works for me! I might add this wonderful crop to my “Birthday Wish List too!” Look out Karen or (Hollis) you now have competition with my Birthday!
    Alison, you did such a fantastic job explaining the cropping of corn, that I will forever have the utmost respect from how much work that goes into harvesting this wonderful vegetable! Thank you for all the hard work that you did putting this artical together for us. Your efforts putting these informative and interesting articles together makes us simple folk a whole lot smaaaaattaaaaa! We love you!

    1. Wow Judy, thanks for your great compliment. Esp. since I get so much great info from you…There’s just one thing – the whole cold refrigerated day old corn, just doesn’t have the appeal, but I’ll have to try it given it comes from such a reliable source – YOU.. By the way, next time I see you I’ll bring some corn if you can wait that long.

  2. It’s been gratifying to learn how many people love this blog. And if my regular and FB friends would write their comments here you would know that a few bought Barkers corn the weekend after this appeared and share my enthusiasm, you’d also know my sister black mailed me into getting her her birthday corn, which I admit I didn’t do this year because we went to a restaurant for her bday, but how could I deny her when she complimented this post so enthusiastically calling to say…”well that’s the first one of your blogs I completely got through, now that was interesting and well written”…I had to ask her to stop gushing. I guess she always wanted to know the history of “her” corn. So stop by the farm and tell the Barkers you read about them here, and maybe they’ll believe that it was worth it to let me traipse through their fields.

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