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Husky Sales and Appetites

Agriculture: Sweet corn has become a specialty crop in Ventura County, where residents and visitors buy up the ears as soon as they're picked.

July 14, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cornfield is ablaze in two-tone color now, towering stalks of green crowned with golden feelers and visible to every motorist scooting in either direction over the Conejo Grade in Camarillo.

This is Ventura County's own slice of the Midwest, a 130-acre anomaly in a crop-rich county that is better known for its summer strawberries and year-round lemons. However, it is here, in a field that most of the year is dedicated to other crops, that Boskovich Farms has sated the public's appetite for summer sweet corn for nearly a decade.

That has translated into big business for the Valley Farms produce stand near Moorpark, where sweet corn sales outpace such favorites as oranges, strawberries and tomatoes.

"The only thing we make money off of is the corn," said Angela Bova, manager of the Tierra Rejada Valley fruit stand where Boskovich sells its corn.

"We don't even open for the season until the corn is ready," Bova added. "And we get people who come from all over just to try it."

From the Field to Market in a Day

Ventura County sweet corn is not to be mistaken for produce found in grocery store bins, county growers say.

Most locally grown corn is sold at the produce stands that dot the county's back roads. And most is sold the day it is picked, often by laborers who shoulder canvas sacks and wade through stalks that grow taller than they are.

The county's 1,000-acre corn crop generates more than $1 million annually.

That compares with 25,000 acres of lemons, which had a value last year of $187 million, or 7,600 acres of strawberries, which grossed $186 million.

Not all of the corn grown in the county is sent to market.

Two years ago, New York theatrical producer Don Frantz carved a maze out of a Camarillo cornfield near Cal State Channel Islands. The Amazing Maize Maze was one of nearly two dozen Frantz had created nationwide.

The attraction withered away with little fanfare this year, after back-to-back summers of drawing thousands of visitors and bringing unprecedented attention to the county's corn crop. Promoters say the maze could return next summer.

Good for Soil, Great for Sales

Craig Underwood isn't willing to wait that long. At his Tierra Rejada Family Farm near Moorpark, Underwood said he is preparing to carve a maze later this summer out of a cornfield he planted for that purpose.

In the meantime, he said his yellow-and-white corn continues to be a bestseller, although corn is one of the few things visitors are not allowed to pick.

"People don't know when it's mature," Underwood explained, brushing past stalks at least a foot taller than he in a remote area of the ranch.

He grows about 20 acres of the sweet bicolored corn from June to November, staggering the plantings so that it is available all summer and into the fall. As a result, his field grows in a downward slope, with the younger stalks shorter.

Plunging in among the taller stalks, where metallic ribbons flutter in the wind to chase away corn-chewing birds, Underwood grabbed an ear of corn and tore open its husk, exposing the two-toned vegetable. He took a bite, then fed the rest to his dog, Jalie, who gnawed it down to the cob.

"This makes the best eating," he said. "There seems to be an association between sunshine and corn. As soon as the weather starts getting warmer, our parking lot gets filled with people looking for corn."

That is what brought out the St. Clair family from Simi Valley. Penny St. Clair and her children Brandon, 1, and Brittney, 6, visited the farm this week and came away with an armload of corn.

There is a practical side to all of this corn mania. Growers say corn is a good crop to use in rotation with other vegetables, because it leaves nutrients that fortify the soil for the next crop.

Along the Ventura Freeway, at the base of the Conejo Grade where Boskovich workers tend to the county's biggest cornfield, production manager David Clarke said that is one reason the company makes the annual planting.

The field was first planted in February. However, heavy rainfall wiped out the crop and led to a second planting the next month. Like Underwood, Clarke said he staggers the plantings so that his sweet corn will be available until November.

All of it ends up with Angela Bova at Valley Farms, where it goes for 50 cents an ear or $5 a dozen.

"It's fresh-picked guaranteed every day," she said. "You're not going to find anything like this in your neighborhood grocery store."

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