Toby is the owner of Lingley Bros. Sweetcorn since 2000. A 1989 graduate of Hoopeston East-Lynn High School, he began farming in 1993, the sixth generation farming the ground he lives on. He and his wife Paige have four children: Jenna, Katie, Josh and Megan. Together they raise 48 acres of sweet corn, 900 tomatoes and a half acre of green beans. In addition to farming, Toby is an Elder at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Hoopeston, an officer on the Rossville Area Fire Department, assistant 4-H leader of Hoopeston Boosters 4-H club and a beekeeper.
Every corn season follows the same pattern: I go out and plant corn as early as possible in April. Weather is just turning from winter to spring and the ground and temperatures are still cold. I try to wait until I am convinced that spring is really here, not just a lone day over 70 degrees but the pressure to do things as early as possible is real and there is no crystal ball to know if your guess is correct. Depending on what happens next determines the course for the first 3 plantings of sweet corn (3 different varieties of differing maturities are planted on the same day): If it warms up the corn comes up well and we will have a decent stand and hope for an early start to the season. If spring retreats and wet cold conditions return for a while, the seed doesn't emerge well (or at all). Sweet corn seed is not like field corn. It is not hearty and tolerant to cold wet soil, it will rot. Spring eventually gets here, weather becomes warm and agreeable and more plantings are made during those conditions.
Fast forward to the beginning of corn season. The weather temperatures from 3 months ago, whatever they may have been, are a distant memory. The corn we have in those first 3 or 4 plantings is what we will be starting out with. More times than not, we have a thin uneven stand to try to navigate picking in the best way possible. It is a fine line to walk because of the wide range of maturity. This is due to plants emerging at different times instead of all at once. Some ears are ready, some are WAY too young. If we start too soon picking just the ready ears, the amount of corn we get from a planting will be super low. If we wait too long, more of the younger ears will be ready but the others may be too mature. So we try to strike the right balance of waiting and then hitting it hard. Kind of like driving up to an intersection at full speed and slamming on the brakes at just the right time so you can get stopped at the stop sign.
Once we get through the first three or four plantings, we begin to get into corn planted and grown in more favorable conditions. The stand and emergence is much better and the yield goes up appreciably. We end up with much more corn to sell and the quality is better as well. It seems an eternity to get to this phase, even though it is only a couple of weeks. Those first couple of weeks are filled with crazy demand, selling out early, not all stands being open and maybe even a few days off. The later the start date and skimpier the initial harvest, the more nervous the customers get. People look at the calendar, realize how late it is and see how little you are at your stands. Thoughts of missing out getting corn in the freezer seem pretty real. So they gobble up corn at astounding rates which only compounds the “selling out early” problem. We do our best to assure everyone that we will indeed have an abundance, just not yet. Combine that with several large orders for the normal early season "events" and the supply is woefully short to do all the things people want to do with sweet corn.
Eventually we get into our main season corn which is great and plentiful. This is when we are able to offer our “freezer specials” and begin to be at our stands until 5. Hopefully we have talked most of you into waiting for this phase to fill your freezers. And then so begins the rest of a long season. We will have corn all through August and September and will see literally tons of the prettiest corn loaded on our trailers that hopefully gets taken home. The urgency and worry of corn availability wears off as people begin to see us at our stands every day until 5. We may even begin to throw away corn that didn't get sold that day. When that happens, one can't but think back to the beginning of the season and lament not having this corn back then. Matching supply with the demand of a product that has zero shelf life is the single biggest challenge of our business. But so it goes....the predictable pattern I spoke about at the top of the page.
We expect this upcoming week to be about the last of the unevenly emerged “first planting” corn that doesn't yield well. The following patch looks much better and as each successive patch comes on, it will be even better. Hang in there, eventually there will be corn running out of our “ears”.
Selling loads of near-perfect corn is fun and easy. You get to make lots of people happy and it doesn't take much time or effort to find the right 13 ears to put in a bag. As a grower, judgment on when to start selling and when to pull the plug are the only things to decide. When the corn is flawed, however, it becomes more of a challenge. A couple of things come into play. First, we take very seriously your expectations and our reputation. We AGONIZE over our product being good enough to not disappoint. We routinely pass sellable corn in the field to another planting that is better. We don't hold over and sell day old corn. We will put as many ears in a bag as necessary to be called a “dozen” We do everything possible short of shucking it on the spot to put a good product in the bag. Secondly, we strive to make you aware of whatever shortcomings there might be. It seems simple enough but in reality this is hard to do. In my mind, I am going to have a one on one conversation with each customer like a store clerk selling a phone at Verizon. What happens is, people line up, we begin to do our best to judge the corn that goes into each dozen (which takes much longer) and the line grows. The pressure mounts to work faster and it becomes impossible to accomplish. So, I write things on my white board but to my dismay, very few people read it. I try to come up with ways to be informative on Facebook and the website but you are limited in space and what people will read (and who actually saw it that day). Worst of all, some people will say “We always get good corn, we are sure its fine” without actually listening to you. I say it's the worst because it makes me feel like I am betraying a trust.
In the big scheme of things, we are in control of very little when it comes to “growing” corn. If you have been around me very long, you have probably heard me say “God makes it, we just pick it”...and I am sincere when I say it. Weather and growing conditions are obviously in God's hands. Sometimes we are blessed with near perfection and other times, we do the best with what we have. Its a concept that is easy to remember when things don't go right, but harder when folks are slapping your back with compliments. I try my best to meet the compliments with this statement because all I did was plant a seed.
That brings us to our current patch of corn. It endured a long, hot dry stretch with only a smattering of rain. It isn't what we had hoped for. This variety doesn't handle stress well and as a result, it does this weird thing where it makes a tassel on the end (or in the middle of) the ear. Then it puts kernels on this tassel. It really looks weird compared to our other variety we have sold for a month. But each variety has strengths and weaknesses. That is why there are thousands of varieties of field corn, each doing something different (and sometimes better) in certain conditions. This current variety does better in the later season, is sweeter and provides better protection against worms. It makes a long skinny ear with a small cob. The previous “football” corn is weaker on worm protection, stays tender much longer in its maturity, is a very short height, makes a shorter fatter ear (football) and obviously handled hot dry weather better. Different conditions would make it not do as well.
The second problem we are facing with our current variety is an infestation of corn leaf aphids. They flourish in hot, dry conditions and (since our previous variety seemed to have none) we were caught off guard as to the severity of the problem. We expect that as we get into the following planting (and each successive planting after that) both the aphids and the glumes (bobble head,/weird tassel thingy) will lessen and subside. It really is a great tasting variety and one that we have mostly grown and sold over the years. Don't give up on it, we have grown it for a long time for a reason.
In conclusion, I just want to thank you for your loyal, enthusiastic support of our sweet corn business. It is very rewarding to bring our corn to you every summer and see all the ways it brings happiness and joy to our customers. It makes us all the more determined to please all of you kind folks.
Many people have asked for Grandma's Famous Recipe for Freezing Corn so until I get a "Recipe" page done on the website, here it is... (it is also printed on the back of our business cards, ask for one at the stand)
4 qts corn (cut off raw)
1 cup sugar (optional but suggested)
4 heaping Tsp salt
1 qt water
Cut off corn and scrape cob. Cook corn for 10 minutes after bringing to a boil. Cool the mixture (do not drain off liquid) and scoop into freezer bags and freeze. To eat, simply heat and add butter.
Don't try to cut too closely to the cob. Do the best you can, then turn the knife sideways and then scrape the remaining corn off.
Set your pan in ice water to cool before bagging. You can even freeze milk jugs of water beforehand to help cool your batches. DON'T PUT HOT BAGS OF CORN INTO FREEZER. Trust me on this...they will balloon up and maybe pop.
Lay your bags onto cookie sheets to freeze flat. They store nicely instead of frozen globs.
If you are doing a large volume, I have used metal grates from old refrigerators, box fans, etc to lay them on, spaced with wooden blocks. This way no bags are laying on top of one another and they freeze quickly with air circulation around them. Stacking a bunch of bags on top of one another creates the same problem as mentioned above, where the bags in the center don't get cold enough quickly enough and gas builds up in the bags.
I have heard of folks using electric knives and bundt cake pans to make things easier. We still just use a shallow cookie pan and a knife.
Well the first day of 2014 is in the books. As with every season, the first day is always a little disorganized. This is the time where I remember all the things that I forgot to do, fix or add from last year, as if I was taken by surprise that today we would be picking and selling corn. This was one of the better first days, though, as we normally are late to our stands. I am usually running around trying to gather up all of the "stuff" we need at the stand to sell, invariably hunting where I stashed stuff and trying to remember what I am forgetting We even had change for the change boxes and sacks...you know, the essential items you would think were ready to go.
The other thing about first days is just getting into the routine. I liken it to getting into a cold swimming pool, once you're in, its ok and you get used to it. This is the first of 70-80 days where life begins before sunrise and wholly revolves around nothing but corn which takes some getting used to. Believe it or not, not all farmers are the up-before-sunrise kind, myself included. While I do love the early mornings, you won't find me waking in the 4am range unless it is corn season (and I'm the happiest morning person in the family).
The most enjoyable part of the first day is people's unbridled enthusiasm and anticipation for sweet corn and tomatoes. Its a lot of fun to see and a reward for the effort we have put into our produce. It makes you feel as if you are doing exactly what you should be doing.
I know everyone is anticipating the beginning of corn based on the number of calls I have been getting. It is looking like it should be sometime next week but still too young to make a guess. We have had a nice amount of rain and heat to push it along.
On a side note...I am trying to get caught up being in contact with everyone about our start-date and other information regarding our 2014 plans. We left home Sunday June 22nd for the Vermilion Co. fair. We stayed at the campground and had various livestock shows and other 4-H and fair related events that our family was either in charge of, competed in, or both. Besides that the Rossville Fire Dept. had a house we burned as training on Saturday. We got home this past Sunday and then had the funeral for Betty Brown, my grandmother. Needless to say, there were very few times I was able to talk on the phone or be at a computer. Those of you trying to call me, I apologize that I have been unable to speak to you or return your calls. Today is the first day I have been on the computer since June 21st and I have quite a pile to plow through.
Regarding our plans for 2014, things are still a little up in the air. In Danville, the old Gutterridge building was bought by Family Dollar. I am still unsure if I will be able to use their parking lot. If not I will be somewhere close. In Rantoul, we are pretty sure we will be moving back to our old location across from the High School on 136, but again, we have some things to nail down before we are certain.
One other thing I would like to mention, I now have a twitter account which I can update from my phone. If you are on twitter, following @lingleybros hopefully will keep you in the know when stands are sold out, etc. I envision it as being a way to make up-to-the-minute updates to those of you who would appreciate them.
We are home, back in "production" mode and ready to get rolling!
Address: 36029 N. 2040 E. Road Rossville, IL 60963
Telephone: (217) 339-2487 (daily updates during the season at this number)
Social Media: (or click on the icons at the top right of the page)
Good-tasting corn versus good-looking corn
Although we try hard to provide perfect corn, ultimately we have only what God gives us. Every season presents challenges to the corn plants. Weather that is too cold or hot, too wet or dry. Sometimes all of the above at differing times. The result may be corn that is smaller than we like, or not filled out as nicely as it could be. We are merely keepers of the garden and control just a fraction of the things we have described necessary for the perfect ear of corn. What we do control is what we bring to you and how we represent it. We know our corn well, agonize over its shortcomings and make no attempt to hide them. If the best we have is less than perfect, we will be making you aware through our conversations, our signs (read them when you come to our stands) and our daily blog posts. We always want to exceed your expectations and feel that its better to tell you upfront than to have you feel disappointed later. If we are offering it for sale, we guarantee it will taste great and will be as fresh as absolutely possible.
Insect protection from Bt
Bt stands for the naturally occurring bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt lives in the soil and is found all over the world. Bt produces a protein that is not digestible by caterpillars, basically giving the worm a case of fatal indigestion. The Bt protein has been used in organic farming worm control for over 50 years. It is applied directly to the plants (in this case, the silks). In our case, insect protected varieties of corn are now able to produce this Bt protein themselves, expressing it in the silks and leaves that caterpillars consume. It is beneficial for many reasons, chief among them the reduced use of chemical insecticides. While the consumer encounters a very small amount anyway, especially since the silks and husks aren't consumed, we as growers do. Insecticides have to be handled and applied and we do spend hours per day walking through treated plants and leaves Bt drastically reduces our exposure to this since very little if any insecticide need be applied on Bt corn. Another benefit to Bt is that it is only effective on caterpillars. All other beneficial insects, including honeybees, are spared from a non-selective pesiticide that kills everything it comes into contact with. Unfortunately, the downside to this is plenty of gnats, spiders and mosquitoes in the cornfield which wouldn't otherwise be there. These are quite unpopular with our picking crew! For further information about Bt, please check out the Bt Wikipedia page
One of the most challenging aspects of raising good sweet corn is managing insects that like the corn almost as much as we do. These are mainly the Earworms and Corn Borers. The adult moths are the ones you smash on your windshield while driving at night in the summer. These moths fly in and lay a mass of eggs on the underside of the leaves above the ear. Each egg is about the size of the head of a pin. When they hatch, the tiny little worms fall into the leaves next to the ear or on the silks themselves, and chew their way in. They damage the plant and sometimes bore right into the side of the ear. Earworms concentrate on invading the ear itself. As they hatch, the burrow in and eat their way into the end of the ear. Both types of worms grow rapidly and become noticeable in a very short amount of time. The only way to prevent them from doing damage is a diligent spray control schedule. Once inside the protection of the ear or stalk they can no longer be controlled, so timing of a controlling spray is crucial. Through most of the summer, spraying every three to four days is necessary to provide a worm-free product, but is sometimes impossible due to weather conditions. Since the silks of the ear are present three weeks before being harvested, the earlier a failure occurs in the control the more mature (bigger) the worm will be (and the more damage that will be done). Another control method is planting insect protected corn varieties. We have embraced this technology since 2007 and it has drastically reduced the amount of pesticides used on our farm. For more information, see the article about BT in the "All About Sweet Corn" series.
Freshness and Handling
The sugar content in the kernel is what is so important to the flavor of the corn. As mentioned earlier, there is a short window of opportunity to catch growing corn in this sweet state and the window is equally small in keeping it there. It is ultimately a race against the clock, for whether the corn is on the stalk or in your kitchen, the process of sugar converting to starch is in motion. As this happens, the corn becomes less and less sweet and starchier like "field corn". Whether you realize it or not, this is why you are seeking out "fresh picked" sweetcorn, and why "grocery store" corn rarely has a comparable taste. So, how does one keep this from happening as quickly? Refrigeration. The warmer the corn is, the faster this conversion process happens. This makes how you handle your corn crucial to how good it will taste when you eat it. Keeping your corn as cool as practical (as close to freezing as possible) can maintain the quality of flavor for a much longer period. We go through extra effort to sell only corn picked that morning, pick it when it is cool, and keep it shaded. When you purchase it, do your best to keep it out of hot cars, direct sun, and refrigerate it as soon as possible.