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updated: 7/19/2019 4:22 PM

Neither heat, rain, cold nor drought can stop local sweet corn crop

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  • Video: Corn endures cold wet, hot


In this dickens of a summer, the worst of times has given us a tale of too much sour weather for sweet corn at Wiltse's Farm Produce in Maple Park: Too wet. Too cold. Too dry. Too hot. And too tough to keep it going after the death of the family matriarch. And yet …

"There will be corn this weekend," proclaims Joe Wiltse, who joins sisters Patty Marco and Kate Mish as the fourth generation of their family to run Wiltse's Farm Produce along the western border of Kane County.

"We plant as soon as we can get it in," Marco says. "We're hellbent to get some sweet corn here by July Fourth, but we're usually a week or two later."

This year, the first of the corn, planted later than usual on April 21, wasn't ready until this weekend.

"We've talked to older farmers and they say there has never been a spring like this," Marco says. "It's something we've never seen, or care to see again. You'd have wet weeks before, but not wet months."

May, with 8.25 inches of rain, was the wettest May since people started keeping records in 1871, according to the National Weather Service. A soggy April, with 6.02 inches of rain, helped make this the second-soggiest spring.

"It rained, and then it got cold. Potatoes sat in wet, cold dirt, and they rotted. Every year, you have a problem child. This year it's our potatoes, I hope," Marco says. "I tell my siblings, 'I'm getting too old for this.' This spring it was never a nice, gentle rain. It was batten down the hatches."

The potatoes that survived might not be as plentiful or large as in most years, but "they look good," she says.

One crop that is having a banner year is the rumor mill. When people would drive by the Wiltse farm this spring and not see the usual fields of knee-high sweet corn, they thought sweet corn season was washed away, wiped out by cold, or just fell off the schedule after last August's death of 78-year-old Marie Wiltse, who learned the produce farm business from her parents and grandparents and expanded the business after the death of her husband, Jerome "Red" Wiltse.

"We have had some Farm Peeps express sadness that there will not be sweet corn this year," read a July 2 post on the Wiltse's Farm Produce Facebook page. "WAIT! WHAT?!? We WANT to clear this MISCONCEPTION up! YES! We will have SWEET CORN!!"

The first sweet corn is being picked this weekend, but the plan is to extend the season into, and maybe through, October.

Joe Wiltse plants 14 varieties of bicolor, all-white and all-yellow sweet corn, each with its own traits and growing season, which averages about 67 days. And he staggers the plantings so there will be fresh corn every day until October.

His last planting was Wednesday, and he had to bury the seeds a little deeper in the soil to find water. "If it doesn't get moisture, it will just sit there like it does in the bag," Wiltse says.

That first planting on Easter Sunday was done when the ground was wet from April showers. "We mudded it in," Marco says. "We planted in the rain quite a bit."

Standing in the family fields, where some corn is ready and some is just barely peeking out of the dirt, Wiltse and Marco say their fortunes are in nature's hands.

"A half-inch of rain a week would be ideal," Wiltse says, noting some of his corn already has rebounded from storm damage. "We had some high winds and all this stuff was tilted at 45 degrees. We didn't know if it would come back, but it did."

More winds, hail, flooding and drought remain a threat.

"We don't go to Vegas. We just farm," Marco quips.

Nothing illustrates the extremes of nature better than the plants that started growing in the cold and wet and now are hot and dry. "Who thought, after all that rain, we'd be irrigating?" Marco says, explaining how they've had to do that for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, pickles, melons and summer squash.

Late but now here, sweet corn season could last until the farm shuts down for the season on Oct. 31.

"We had it one year into October," Marco says. "A heavy frost is the only thing that can stop us."

When the heat index tops 100 degrees, frost doesn't seem as much of a risk as the corn popping in the fields.