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Heat, drought slam local corn harvest



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August 14, 2012 | 03:39 PM
Bob Pearce and the Sweet Corn Lady's daughter don't look or act alike.

Pearce is lanky and laid back.

Theresa Lee, the Sweet Corn Lady's daughter, is exuberant and uses her hands to talk.

But they both have one thing in common. They sell corn. And this year, that's a risky business.

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There's a sign up at Pearce's farm stand outside of Williams Bay.

"Dry weather has resulted in a decreased variety of produce."

It was right below another sign that simply said "Corn."

While Pearce's sign also noted that the produce they had still tasted great, farm stands throughout the area are feeling the effect of the drought — especially when it comes to one of the simple pleasure of summer, sweet corn.

The original Sweet Corn Lady, Jerry Lee, and her family have been selling corn and other produce in the Delavan area since 1957. Their stand is in the Inlet and there's another Sweet Corn Lady stand in Elkhorn.

While the corn there may still be sweet, there's a lot less of it. So the Sweet Corn Lady is sad this year. Not so much because of the drought's effect on her food stand. She's worried for the small farmers she's worked with for years, said Theresa Lee.

The drought and high temperatures have not been friendly to growers this year. For the large growers, it's been expensive — one said he spent $45,000 in one month to irrigate. But for the little and medium-size farms that the Corn Lady deals with, this summer has been devastating.

"They're the backbone of America," she said of the small farmers. "For some of them, this is their livelihood."

"We lost 60 percent of our fields," said Whitney Lee-Clarahan, one of the Sweet Corn Lady's grandchildren. "My grandmother is really disappointed."

Twin Garden Farms, which sells corn at the Lake Geneva Farmers Market, is a large operation in Harvard, Ill.

Gary Pack, one of the partners running Twin Garden Farms said this summer's hot weather will affect not only this year but next year as well — not in quality but in quantity.

"Ninety-five or 100-degree temperatures kills the pollen," he said. "And if there's no pollen, there's no kernel."

Pack said his operation spent $45,000 on irrigation in June alone. He said he's spending about 90 percent more money than during a usual season.

Pack said it's the worst season he can remember in his 60 years. He said some old-timers say it's the worst since 1956.

By the beginning of July, 56 percent of the country was experiencing drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Due to these extreme conditions, products such as corn, soybeans, and wheat cannot thrive.

Corn prices have gone up by more than a third over the past month nationally — a rate at which experts say is alarming.

"And it's not over yet," Pack said. "There's a lot more summer left."

Mary Ann Pearce, of Pearce's, reiterated the problem with the heat.

She said the crop may look good from the road but when you look at it from a flyover there is too much space between the stalks.

Worried about next year?

"Oh gosh yes," she said.

Even though it's cooled off at night recently, the fields retain the heat. The recent splatter of rain helped but not much.

And there's another problem down the line.

The pumpkins should be growing on top of each other by now but you can see the separation between the rows.

So as summer corn season passes, Halloween jack-o'-lanterns may be next on the list.

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