An online guide to fresh Md. produce

The Baltimore Sun

Ah, sweet corn on the cob - a summertime treat for most Marylanders - is best straight from the field.

It is the freshness that ensures that the kernels have their ephemeral sweet taste and juiciness. And that is what adds to the popularity of corn at farmers' markets and roadside stands across the state.

The first pickings of sweet corn are just beginning to show up on pickup trucks or wagons parked at the end of farm lanes.

In addition to being a treat for consumers, the crop is a benefit to farmers. Sweet corn is the item most in demand at roadside stands, and these stands can be a healthy boost to a farmers' sales.

"It can be a big help in paying our bills during lean times," Phil Councell Jr. said of his retail operation - Councell Farms - on U.S. 50, about five miles north of Easton.

He estimates that about 30 percent of the farm's revenue comes from the roadside stand, and he says it has been a big help in allowing his 20-something son and daughter to be a part of the farm operation.

Maryland's growing season is well under way, and to help link buyers searching for farm-fresh produce with farmers selling such items, the state Department of Agriculture has rolled out an online guide to roadside stands and farm stores.

One is a directory, with a locator map, of farm retail outlets along the main routes taken by vacationers to Ocean City and to Rehoboth Beach, Del.

A second list is a directory of more than 200 roadside stands, farm stores and pick-your-own fruit and vegetable operations throughout the state.

The Web site to find a farm retail operation on your drive is:

Only a small part of the corn that motorists see in fields along highways in the state is the kind we like to steam and eat from the cob. The vast majority of corn produced in the state is the type used as animal feed.

Maryland farmers harvested only 4,600 acres of sweet corn in 2006, the latest figures available from the Maryland Crop Reporting Service. Sales totaled $7.8 million.

By comparison, farmers harvested 425,000 acres of corn for grain that same year and sales totaled more than $202 million.

The bulk of the grain corn, along with Maryland's big soybean crop, is made into chicken feed to support the Eastern Shore's giant poultry industry.

When they plant sweet corn, farmers typically stagger plantings seven to 10 days apart. This helps ensure a steady supply of the corn during the selling season.

In many cases, the sweet corn purchased at farm stands was picked the same day and it is this freshness that adds to the taste.

Former state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said sweet corn is the main draw that attracts consumers to farmers' markets. "It is the king of roadside sales," he said.

He said the early corn brings the best money. "The key to making money is getting a good quality corn on the market early."

While corn is beginning to show up at stands now, the Fourth of July is usually the unofficial start of the market.

Everybody is looking for it at that time. During cookout season, sweet corn is the ideal picnic food.

Riley said that a farmer could make $500 to $600 from each acre of sweet corn planted.

But growing sweet corn is labor intensive. Sweet corn is picked by hand, as opposed to corn for grain, which is harvested by giant machines, six or more rows at a time, by an operator sitting in the air-conditioned cab of a combine.

Safe tomatoes

A local farm stand may also be the best place to buy fresh tomatoes.

Maryland-grown tomatoes are not associated with the recent multistate outbreak of salmonella, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

While government officials are still not certain of the source of the tomatoes causing the outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people in 23 states, they rule out tomatoes grown in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and 20 other states.

The outbreak has been linked to the consumption of certain types of red tomatoes - red plum, red Roma and red round tomatoes - and products such as salsa or guacamole containing these raw red tomatoes.

The FDA is advising consumers to limit their consumption of tomatoes to the following types: cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with vine still attached and tomatoes grown at home.

Most tomatoes grown in Maryland have not become ripe yet, though some producers have hydroponic tomatoes that are available and are being shipped to stores.

In 2006, Maryland farmers grew 12 million pounds of tomatoes valued at $6 million. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, Maryland ranks 19th in the U.S. in tomato production.

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