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Customers stalk Fresno State's sweet corn

Carefully nurtured produce is a cash crop for the university and a sensation on Central Valley tables, with annual sales estimated at 1 million ears.

August 05, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Ganesan Srinivasan samples an ear of corn grown by his students at Fresno State University.
Ganesan Srinivasan samples an ear of corn grown by his students at Fresno… (Tracie Cone / Associated…)

Reporting from Fresno -- It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Fresno State sweet corn went from best-kept secret to Central California icon.

But a good bet would be this summer.

The first day the corn was picked, people lined up at 6 a.m. outside the university's farm store, the same as they have for five years. This season, however, a line stretching all the way to the parking lot was there at dawn the next day. And the day after that.

"It took me five times coming to get my first corn this year," said Rosemary Rendon, 76. "But I kept coming because I'm stubborn and because this corn is really something else."

The ears are big, with kernels that are plumper than spheres on Bubble Wrap. It is sweet as honey and creamy as butter. You can smell the grassy-corn scent the second you pull back the husk.

This year, the store is on track to sell 1 million ears — three for $1 — to customers who come from miles around. Or, more recently, from several hundred miles around.

"This morning a woman said: 'I drove all the way from L.A.  just for the corn,' " student store worker Hannah Deeter said one recent day. "I thought, 'How cool — totally crazy — but cool.' "

There is no magic seed. No bioengineered flavor enhancement. The secret of the corn comes down to care, said Ganesan Srinivasan, director of Cal State Fresno's agricultural lab.

"If you're a corn man like me, the corn plant can speak to you. If you ignore corn, don't pay enough attention, it gets depressed. But if you give care, the corn gives back," he said, picking an ear off a stalk in a nearby field.

In Srinivasan's case "corn man" means research scientist with a doctorate who has studied corn in three countries. In the last five years, under his tutelage, agricultural students have reduced tilling and fine-tuned applications of water and nitrogen. The corn is grown from the hybrid Vision seed, a common variety that produces much of the corn sold in grocery stores.

Crews pick the ears at dawn by hand. What's picked is almost always sold out that day.

People even buy it as a gift for a host or hostess.

"If you get invited to dinner or a party and you're from Fresno, it's considered a nice thing to bring a bag of corn," Deeter said.

When its not corn season, the campus store is a sleepy spot where those in the know buy student-produced wine, ice cream, sausage and olives. All are a testament to the agricultural school's crop-to-plate educational mandate.

But from June to September, the store is a flurry of chatter and activity. There's a constant line of customers. People who buy the corn end up spending an average of $3 on other products, with 90% of the profits going into the agricultural program.

"Without the corn, we wouldn't be able to keep the store running. We live for corn season," said student employee Joseph Rodrigues.

One lesson for students, Srinivasan said, is that they can grow their own markets by growing a quality product.

During that first week of high demand, Srinivasan offered to let customers in wheelchairs and walkers take cuts in line.

"They all said no, they wanted the whole experience," he said. "It's become a ritual. When summer comes, you stand in line for Fresno sweet corn."

The corn is even sweeter in the later part of the summer, because more heat produces more sugars. There are just as many people buying, but the lines are typically shorter because customers' visits are spread throughout the day.

On a recent summer afternoon, people were bent over a bin, filling up their bags with tasseled ears.

Christine Karas, 59, a hairstylist, was making a corn run for everyone who works at her salon. Fresno State President John D. Welty was picking up a dozen ears for a barbecue.

When Welty arrived on the job in July 1991, the middle of corn season, people told him the school had the best corn he would ever taste.

"I was skeptical," he said. "I'm from the Midwest, and the Midwest has really good corn.  But this is better. I'm here almost every week during the season."

Dennis Pollock, a agricultural industry reporter, was also buying his weekly supply.

"It's one of those type of deals where it's just word of mouth but grows into a phenomenon," he said. "Now Fresno State sweet corn season is a pivotal thing. People really care about things like good-tasting corn."

Despite the crowds at the store, there are no brawls at the corn bin. The student workers' only complaint is that when they're ringing up a sale and ask "How many ears?" the customers invariably hold their hands to their face and say: "Two."

"It's not that it's not funny," Rodrigues said. "It's just that we've heard it — a lot."

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.

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