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Local farmers battle weather, rising prices, shortages to produce sweet corn this summer

For Rita Firestone, growing, harvesting and selling sweet corn has been an integral part of her life since she and her late husband started The Original Firestone’s Sweet Corn Stand along Route 30 in Unity 52 years ago.

Firestone, 78, said, “I do it because I want to do it, but if I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t be here.”

But growing sweet corn successfully this year has not come without its challenges, with fluctuating weather and rising fuel prices, according to local farmers.

Firestone said their sweet corn is late this year because of the weather. He would like to have it by July 1, but a “very cold, wet spring” will prevent him from reaching that goal.

“We didn’t get it when we wanted it,” Firestone said.

With fuel prices and supply shortages on the rise, Firestone said, the price of seed has gone up “a little bit,” the spray is “harder to get” and the cost of fertilizer has also gone up. However, he said he is trying to hold the line and keep his sweet corn price at $8 per dozen.

“They think we’re making money hand over fist,” Firestone said of some customers. “(But) when you factor in the cost of planting it, the cost of picking it, there’s not a huge profit margin.”

This summer Firestone will sell sweet corn for the first time without her husband, who died in January. She had been ill for a long time, Firestone said, and her son gradually took over the business.

“He always told us we were doing it wrong,” Firestone recalled of her late husband. “But they’re not here to tell us we’re doing it wrong this year.”

Over the years, Firestone has grown crops in various locations and estimates he farms about 80 acres of sweet corn.

Similar to Firestone’s adjusted planting timeline, Kistaco Farm Market’s sweet corn isn’t quite ready, according to owner Tim Hilleman.

“(My) best guess is three weeks,” Hillman, 60, said. “I couldn’t get to the fields because it was so wet… Normally, I plant it at least two weeks before.”

While Hillman has no trouble getting the supplies he needs, he said the market in Kiski Township costs more for sweet corn.

Hillman said he noticed hot weather in June, which caused some dryness in the soil.

“It’s not terrible … I haven’t irrigated anything,” Hileman said.

Ralph Myers of Myers Pickle Farm in Gilpin said his sweet corn is “thirsty” from the lack of rain. Bill Modzelewski, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, said this June saw Pittsburgh’s second-lowest rainfall in 10 years.

“Everything needs water right now,” said Myers, 85.

Their corn is scheduled to be harvested in late July.

Neal Palmer, co-owner and manager of Palmer’s Farm in Unity, said while he’s certain his sweet corn won’t be ready by the Fourth of July, harvest time will depend on upcoming weather.

“(Dry weather) starts to become a problem because as crops get bigger they need more water,” Palmer said. “We’re at the point where we need rain now.”

The rain will help “move things along” and they hope to open next week to sell sweet corn.

According to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the typical timeline for farmers to sell sweet corn is mid-July through September, but, due to its popularity around the Fourth of July, some start selling earlier.

Windy Heights Farm Market in East Huntingdon was able to sell full ears of sweet corn last week, thanks to a new method of planting this year.

Greg Forezt Jr. said sweet corn is seeded in trays in the greenhouse and then transplanted and covered.

Forezt, 29, said: “That’s why the size of the ear is so big.”

Despite their success in the growing process, Forzet said production costs have increased significantly due to rising fuel prices and supply shortages.

He said he’s seen the price of his fertilizer go up “about 400%,” and because of the increase, Windy Heights is charging $10 per dozen this year, up $2 from last year.

Palmer said he expects his sweet corn prices to increase due to the same issues, though he doesn’t know by how much.

Myers agreed, saying he’s sure the price of his sweet corn should be higher this year because he paid double to grow it.

“Everything is up in the sky,” Myers said. “You can’t farm today.”

Megan Swift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can reach Megan at 724-850-2810, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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