Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center

Vegetable Research and Extension

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Baby Corn Research Project 1998

By: Carol A. Miles, Ph.D., and Leslie Zenz
Washington State University Extension,
360 NW North St., Chehalis, WA 98532

Owen Shaffner, owner and operator of Shaffner Farms, Montesano, and Carol Miles, Washington State University (WSU) Extension, conducted a 2-year study to investigate baby corn production and marketing. Owen sells his vegetables to restaurants in the region and a few years ago a buyer asked him to supply baby corn. Owen was not familiar with the crop and asked WSU Extension which corn varieties were recommended for baby corn production and how this crop was produced. Carol looked for information but did not find adequate recommendations. Since both Carol and Owen were interested in finding out more about growing baby corn, they planted an experiment at Owen’s farm in 1997 to test ten corn varieties. The experiment raised many questions about quality, yield, and marketing of baby corn, and in 1998 they applied for and received a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to investigate baby corn production and marketing in Grays Harbor County.

Background

Babycorn, popular in many Asian cuisines, has become a staple in salad bars across the United States. Most of the baby corn sold in the US and in Europe is imported from Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. Baby corn is an extremely easy crop to produce and is grown just like any other corn crop. It is not produced locally because hand labor is required for harvesting and processing, market prices are unknown, and consumers are unfamiliar with it as a fresh crop. However, locally produced fresh baby corn has several advantages over imported baby corn. It is superior in both taste and texture to processed baby corn, and it can easily be grown organically. There has been a large increase in demand for organic foods in the US, and none of the imported baby corn is organically grown. This may be the time for small farmers to test the market for baby corn locally. Markets may include organic sales through farmers’ markets, restaurants, local grocery stores and health food stores.

Variety Selection for Baby Corn

In Asia, baby cornis produced from specialty field corn varieties which have been selected for high quality baby corn production. These specialty varieties are field corn types (referred to as Su types) and if the ear is allowed to mature it will look like a typical, medium-sized ear of field corn. Baby corn ears are harvested early, when they are 2–4 inches long and 1/3–2/3 inch in diameter. In addition to the specialty baby corn varieties, some regular varieties of field corn (Su), sweet corn (Su), sugary enhanced sweet corn (se), and super sweet corn (sh2) varieties may also be suitable for fresh baby corn production. There is no taste advantage in using sweet corn instead of field corn as the immature ears are harvested before pollination occurs and before any sugars have accumulated in the kernels. The seed cost of most sweet corn varieties tends to be greater than seed cost of regular field corn, and this may be a disadvantage. Additionally, field corn varieties tend to be prolific (producing multiple ears) and this may contribute to their high yield potential for baby corn production.

1997 Baby Corn Variety Trial

In 1997, Carol and Owen planted 10 corn varieties and evaluated them for baby corn production in Montesano, Washington. Among the varieties tested were 2 specialty baby corn (Baby Corn and Tainan #5), 1 sweet corn (Jubilee), and 7 field corn varieties of which 2 are currently grown in the area (NK1699 and NK0565). Field corn is a long-standing traditional crop in western Washington and we were especially interested to see if the varieties commonly grown in the area could be harvested for baby corn.

Procedure

The experimental design was a randomized complete block design with 4 replications. Plots were 10 feet long and 2 rows wide; total study area was 0.08 acres. The planting date was May 26. Seed was spaced 2 inches apart in the row and rows were 40 inches apart. A 15-15-15 fertilizer was banded at planting at the rate of 150 pounds actual N-P-K per acre. After seeding, the plots were covered with floating row covers to protect the planting from crows which completely destroyed a corn planting in the same field in 1996. The row cover was removed on June 21, approximately 4 weeks after planting.

Results

Heights

At harvest, we measured plant height, the height of the bottom ear, and the height of the top ear of each variety (Table 1). Ear height was measured from the ground up, and most plants had 2-3 ears. Ears on Tom Thumb (a dwarf popcorn variety recommended by Johnny's Selected Seed for baby corn production) and Cargill 1077 (a dwarf field corn variety) were very low to the ground and we harvested these varieties on our knees or stooped over. Tainan # 5 (a popular baby corn variety from Taiwan) was quite tall, greater than 7 feet, and the top ear was sometimes difficult to see due to leaf coverage. Ears on all other varieties were generally at waist height. Jubilee, the sweet corn variety tended to be easier to pull off the stalk than all other varieties.

Table 1. Mean plant height (ft), height of the bottom ear, height of the top ear, and overall ear quality, where 3 = very good, 2 = good, 1 = poor and 0 = very poor. Montesano, Washington in 1997.


Variety
Plant
Height (ft)
Height (ft) of
Bottom Ear
Height (ft) of
Top Ear
Overall Ear
Quality
Johnny's M212 (popcorn, Su)
6.4
0.5
3.5
0.8
Johnny's Tom Thumb (popcorn, Su)
2.5
0.2
1.2
0.5
Baby Corn (Su)
5.6
0.5
3.5
2.8
Jubilee (Su)
5.9
0.5
2.6
2.7
Tainan # 5 (Su)
7.7
0.6
4.4
2.0
NK 1699 (Su)
6.1
0.5
3.0
1.8
NK 0565 (Su)
6.3
0.5
3.2
1.7
Cargill 1877 (Su)
6.7
0.6
3.6
1.6
Cargill 1037 (Su)
6.6
0.6
3.3
1.1
Cargill 1077 (Su)
4.2
0.4
1.9
1.7

Quality

Good ear quality is extremely important for the marketability of baby corn. Quality is based on ear characteristics such as row alignment where straighter rows are preferred, kernel size where petite is preferred, and ear tip shape where tapered is preferred. We rated each variety for overall ear quality based on these three ear characteristics, where 3=very good, 2=good, 1=poor, and 0=very poor (Table 1). Tom Thumb was rated very poor as its rows were not straight, its kernels were very large, and the ear tip was blunt (Figure 1). The other popcorn variety, M212, and the field corn variety, Cargill 1037, were of poor quality due to their large kernel size. All other field corn varieties had good ear characteristics and were suitable for baby corn production. Jubilee and Baby Corn produced the highest quality ears.

photo of baby corn photo comparing baby corn to ear picked 4 days later
Figure 1. Dwarf corn variety Tom Thumb grown in Montesano, Washington in 1997. Figure 2. Ears quickly grow to be too large for baby corn; a harvest delay of 4 days can make an ear unmarketable.

Harvest

We began harvesting ears 3–5 days after silks first appeared and found that many ears were already too large to be used as baby corn. We then began harvesting earlier, 1–3 days after silking. We harvested plants once a week but found that if the corn was not harvested for 4 days, the ears were unmarketable as they grew so rapidly and were too big (Figure 2). We measured ear length and ear diameter of nine varieties (we chose not to measure Tom Thumb as it was unmarketable) at 1–3 days after silking. The mean ear length of all varieties ranged between 2–3 inches and the mean ear width ranged between 1/3–1/2 inch. Market criteria for baby corn ears are a length of 2–4 inches and a width of 1/3–2/3 inch. The nine varieties could be harvested early enough to produce ears to fit the size criteria, however their appearance could make them undesirable as baby corn. Although we measured yield, harvest dates, and the number of harvests for each variety, this data did not fairly represent marketable production because we began harvesting too late and many of the ears were too large.

1998 Baby Corn Variety Trial

In1998, we tested 10 corn varieties, including 6 sweet corn varieties, 2 field corn varieties, and 2 specialty baby corn varieties. Three of these varieties, Jubilee, Baby Corn and NK1699, had performed well in 1997. We included more sweet corn than field corn varieties for two reasons. First, we felt the ear qualities of the field corn varieties tested in 1997 were generally not good enough for baby corn, and second, we felt it more likely that a sweet corn grower would be interested in marketing baby corn as it is a fresh market, hand-picked crop, similar to sweet corn. In addition to the variety trial, Owen also grew a large plot of Jubilee for baby corn production. He test marketed the baby corn through a grocery store, restaurants, the farmers’ market, and his on-farm stand.

Procedure

Experimental design and planting procedures were the same as in 1997. The planting date was May 12. Floating row covers were placed over the variety trial plots immediately after planting and were removed June 1, approximately 3 weeks after planting. No row covers were placed over the market plot of Jubilee.

Results

We harvested plants 3 days a week for 2 months, July 31 through September 25. Ears were harvested 1–3 days after silk emergence. Each variety was harvested 12–18 times . As harvest progressed, however, marketability of the ears of all varieties declined significantly (Figure 3). In general, the first and second ears were of good or very good quality, and the third ear was of poor or very poor quality (Figure 4).

graph of mean quality of 9 varieties photo of poor quality baby corn ears
Figure 3. Mean quality (3=very good, 2=good, 1=poor, 0=very poor) of 9 corn varieties harvested for baby corn over a 2-month period (standard error of the mean). Figure 4. Poor quality of baby corn ears harvested late in the season at Montesano, Washington in 1998.

Harvest

The length of time to first harvest was measured as days after planting (DAP), and harvest dates were calculated for the period when yields were marketable (Table 2). When we compared the harvest dates of Jubilee in the variety trial plots to the harvest dates of Jubilee in the market planting (which was immediately adjacent), we observed that the row cover advanced maturity by 2 weeks. The data which is presented in Table 2 reflects what could be expected without row cover as we felt this would most fairly reflect what farmers could expect in their own growing environment. Kandy King and Custer were the two earliest varieties (harvest began 94 DAP), and Tendertreat was the latest variety (harvest began 108 DAP). Most varieties produced marketable ears for 3–4 weeks, except Custer which was productive for only 2 weeks. In general, harvest is 2–3 weeks later in western Washington than in most other parts of the country due to cool night temperatures which slow plant development. It is not clear how climate affects the harvest period but it seems likely that it would extend it due to cool temperatures. 2 Vanta 80, one of the field corn varieties, did not produce any ears which were marketable as baby corn.

Table 2. Days after planting (DAP) to first harvest of baby corn, harvest dates, and harvest period (days) of 10 corn varieties in Montesano, Washington in 1998.

Variety
First harvest (DAP)
Harvest dates
Harvest period (days)
Kandy King (se)
94
7/31 - 8/28
29
Custer (se)
94
7/31 - 8/14
15
Tuxedo (se)
97
8/3 - 9/2
30
GH 2283 (Su)
97
8/3 - 8/31
28
Bodacious (se)
97
8/3 - 8/31
28
NK 1699 (Su)
99
8/5 - 9/2
28
Jubilee (Su)
102
8/8 - 9/4
27
Babycorn (Su)
104
8/10 - 9/4
25
Tendertreat (se)
108
8/14 - 9/17
34
2 Vanta 80 (Su) no marketable harvest
Mean
99
8/5 - 9/1
27

Yield

Plants were harvested from the center 10 feet of the row throughout the season; however, when ear quality dropped below marketability, the yield data for those harvests was discarded. The total marketable weight (lbs) of baby corn was measured with the husk and without the husk (Table 3). Just as with sweet corn, it is recommended to market baby corn in the husk to maintain ear freshness. On average, the weight of the edible ear was 13% the weight of the ear with the husk. The total marketable ear weight with the husk of NK1699, the field corn variety, was significantly greater than all other varieties; however, its total marketable ear weight without the husk was not as great as for Kandy King. Although NK1699 produced significantly more marketable ears than all other varieties, the weight per ear of this variety was the lowest. Kandy King produced the second greatest number of marketable ears and the weight per ear of this variety was average (0.012 lb per ear).

Table 3. Total marketable ear weight (lbs), from 10 feet of row, with the husk and without the husk, % edible ear weight (lbs), the total number of marketable ears, and the weight (lb) per ear of 9 corn varieties grown for baby corn in Montesano, Washington in 1998.

Total Marketable Ear Wt.
(lbs)
Total Number
of
Wt. (lb)
Variety
With Husk
Without Husk
% Edible Ear
Wt.
Marketable Ears
Per Ear
NK 1699 (Su)
10.29
0.98
0.10
111.3
0.009
Jubilee (Su)
7.12
0.70
0.10
72.5
0.010
Kandy King (se)
6.71
1.01
0.15
86.5
0.012
Custer (se)
5.69
0.77
0.14
59.0
0.013
Tendertreat (se)
5.62
0.60
0.11
52.5
0.011
GH 2283 (Su)
5.53
0.73
0.13
61.3
0.012
Tuxedo (se)
5.15
0.78
0.15
53.3
0.015
Bodacious (se)
4.59
0.66
0.14
55.3
0.012
Babycorn (Su)
3.68
0.42
0.11
41.4
0.010
Mean
6.04
0.74
0.13
65.9
0.012

Quality

After baby corn ears had been husked and weighed, we rated them for overall ear quality, where 3=very good, 2=good, 1=poor, and 0=very poor. The quality of 2 Vanta 80 was poor and none of the ears of this variety were suitable for marketing as baby corn (Table 4). The quality of all other varieties was good or very good and all were very acceptable for baby corn production. The average length of marketable ears was generally good for all varieties and they were within the market criteria of 2–4 inches. However, the ear width of most varieties was on the larger end of the market criteria. For those ears which were 0.01 inches larger than the market criteria, the difference was visually undetectable and it seems unlikely that they would be unacceptable on the market. GH2283 and Tuxedo produced long slender ears while ears of Jubilee appeared short and wide. Tendertreat produced ears of slightly larger width than desirable, however an earlier harvest would likely solve this issue.

Table 4. Overall ear quality rating (3=very good, 2=good, 1=poor, and 0=very poor) length and width (in) of 10 corn varieties grown for baby corn in Montesano, Washington in 1998.

Average Marketable Ear
Variety
Overall Ear Quality
Length (in)
Width (in)
Tendertreat (se)
2.7
3.3
0.72
Jubilee (Su)
2.4
3.0
0.66
Bodacious (se)
2.1
2.8
0.68
Tuxedo (se)
2.1
3.6
0.62
GH 2283 (Su)
2.0
3.5
0.59
Kandy King (se)
1.9
3.0
0.68
Babycorn (Su)
1.8
3.1
0.63
NK 1699 (Su)
1.8
3.1
0.68
Custer (se)
1.7
3.2
0.67
NK 0565 (Su)
0.8
Market Criteria
2.0 - 4.0
0.33 - 0.67

Summary of Results

In our studies, we found that sweet corn varieties tended to produce better quality baby corn than common field corn varieties. However, it is necessary to evaluate all varieties individually to determine if they are suitable for baby corn production. Based on ear quality and yield, we felt that of the varieties we tested, Kandy King, GH 2283, Tuxedo, Custer, Tendertreat, and Bodacious were the best suited for baby corn production. As the harvest season progresses, the quality of the baby corn ears of all the varieties declined significantly so that they were not marketable. It appears that the first and second ear are of very good or good quality, while the third ear is of poor or very poor quality. Optimum plant nutrient and moisture stress may need to be more closely investigated to produce high quality baby corn for a longer period.

Marketing

To help promote marketing of baby corn, we developed recipe cards which Owen distributed to his customers. These cards gave some general information about the crop as well as how to cook it. We found that most customers had no experience cooking baby corn and needed some basic instruction. Customers appeared more inclined to purchase this crop for the first time if they had a better understanding of what to do with it. We made these cards available to other farmers through an Alternative Crops Workshop in September 1998 at the Seattle Pike Place Market, at the Southwest Washington Small Farm Conference in March 1999, and at the Farmers’ Market Annual Conference in May 1999 at the Seattle Pike Place Market.

We submitted articles to several popular press magazines. It is our goal to increase public awareness of baby corn thereby increasing demand for the crop. An article in the May/June 1999 edition of Growing Edge mentioned our baby corn research trial and highlighted the collaborative nature of the project. A brief news item on baby corn production was published in the June 1999 edition of National Gardening, and a 2-page article on baby corn production was published in the May 1999 edition of Vegetable Grower (copies attached). We submitted a 1-page article to Farm Journal and hope to see it in the July 1999 edition.

Production Recommendations

Based on our project results, we have developed production recommendations for baby corn. The recommendations will be published this fall as a Washington State University PNW (Pacific Northwest) Extension publication in the series, Farming West Of The Cascades.

What We Learned

  • Baby corn can be produced from many common sweet corn and field corn varieties. The ears must be harvested 1–3 days after silk emergence, while they are still immature, to produce the small ears characteristic of "baby corn"
  • Most people have the impression that baby corn is grown on baby plants. This is not the case! The average height of corn plants which produce baby corn is 6 feet
  • Plants of approximately 6 feet in height tend to produce ears at waist height and these are the easiest to harvest. Dwarf varieties produce ears very low to the ground requiring extra time and labor for harvesting, while very tall varieties (greater than 7 ft) produce a top ear which is difficult to see
  • Sweet corn varieties tend to be easier to hand harvest than field corn varieties – ears are easier to pull off the stalk
  • Good ear quality is the principal factor determining the marketability of baby corn. Quality is based on ear characters such as row alignment where straighter rows are preferred, kernel size where petite is preferred, and ear tip shape where tapered is preferred. Ear quality and appearance are more important than yield in choosing a corn variety for baby corn production. Each variety should be evaluated to determine if it produces a high quality baby corn ear
  • Most corn varieties produced ears of baby corn which met the market criteria for ear length and width, 2–4 inches and 1/3–2/3 inch, respectively. However it seems unlikely that ears which are slightly wider (0.01 inches more) would be rejected.
  • It is necessary to harvest the corn crop every 2–3 days. If ears are not harvested for 4 days, they can grow too big to be marketed as baby corn
  • A planting can be harvested many times. Most varieties produce marketable ears for 3 - 4 weeks, and if they are harvested every 2–3 days during this period, they amount to 9 - 12 harvests. By knowing harvest dates and how long a variety can be harvested, farmers can choose varieties to extend the harvest season. This is important because buyers want fresh baby corn throughout the growing season, not just once or twice.
  • As the harvest period progresses, marketability of the ears declines significantly. In general, the first and second ears are of good or very good quality, and the third ear is of poor or very poor quality and is unmarketable. Therefore, marketable yield may be more directly impacted by the number of plants per acre rather than the number of ears per plant. Prolific plants (plants which produce multiple ears) may not be best suited to baby corn production and it is necessary to evaluate each variety individually for quality of baby corn production
  • On average, the weight of the edible ear was 13% the weight of the ear with the husk
  • Just as with sweet corn, we recommend marketing baby corn in the husk to maintain ear freshness. The small ears are very tender and risk damage, discoloration, and dehydration if the husks are removed prior to use. Harvest in the morning when temperatures are cooler and place unhusked ears in refrigerated storage.
  • Marketing is enhanced when growers provide consumers and retailers with recipe cards which also include general interest information as well as preparation information.
  • Markets may include organic sales through farmers' markets, restaurants, local grocery stores and health food stores. It seems unlikely that fresh local baby corn will replace the processed imported baby corn commonly seen at salad bars due to the higher cost of production in the US

Cucumber Beetle

Western spotted cucumber beetles were seen in high numbers in the baby corn experiment in 1997, and it was thought that they might be damaging the corn plants. The Western spotted cucumber beetle is greenish yellow in color with black spots and is often confused for a green lady bug. It is a pest in many vegetable crops in both its adult and larval stages of development. The adult feeds on corn silks, preventing pollination and kernel formation. The larvae, commonly called corn root worm, feed on plant roots, resulting in ‘swan necking’ or the bending of the plant at the ground surface in a U shape. This damage makes harvesting extremely difficult. In 1998, we monitored the Western spotted cucumber beetle with yellow sticky traps in the baby corn experiment area. The traps were counted every 2 weeks, however very few Western spotted cucumber beetles were attracted to them. We also did not observe any swan necking in the corn plots. We did observe Western spotted cucumber beetles in neighboring fields and on dandelion flowers. We had hoped that by knowing how many Western spotted cucumber beetles were in the area and by observing plant damage, we would better understand if these insects affected yield and harvestability. In 1998 we were not able to determine if Western spotted cucumber beetle impacted corn plant health or yield because they were not attracted to our traps nor did they appear to be feeding in our plots.

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