The way a cornstalk grows has been compared to the way a telescope extends; the internode slides out of the leaf sheath, and when it does, it’s been said to make a sound that’s audible. “Do you ever hear your corn grow?” I asked Tom Chino one morning. I recall that he snickered at the question, then replied, “I’ve never had that illusion.”
That day, the notion of corn so bursting with vitality that one could hear it getting taller did seem remote, even laughable. Overhead a leaden sky sagged, menacing. A chill breeze sliced across the fields. The tallest corn anywhere on the Chino property barely cleared two feet, and it was growing at a slower rate than almost any other corn crop in the Chino family’s history on this property.
There was a time I might have assumed that the growth rate of their corn crop wouldn’t matter much to the Chinos. I thought of corn, then, as a proletarian vegetable, one of those least likely to turn up in the kitchens of great restaurants or the columns of food critics. But renowned chefs make pilgrimages to the Rancho Santa Fe property. Influential writers such as Ruth Reichl of the New York Times and Jeffrey Steingarten (The Man Who Ate Everything) have raved about the produce there. In 1992, a lengthy New Yorker magazine profile of the Chinos’ operation detailed some of the elements that explain this acclaim. Among them is a willingness to produce such crops as mara du bois strawberries, cardoon, black salsify, lablab beans, purple Chinese long beans, and more.
In this rarefied realm, where does homey corn fit? “You need to have corn, or you can’t run a vegetable stand,” Chino told me. “In the summertime, if you don’t have corn, you don’t have a stand. Unless you’re selling apples. But they’re not local.”
When Tom’s parents, Junzo and Hatsuyo, moved to this property after World War II, they grew corn only for their own family. It eventually included nine children, Junzo and Hatsuyo both were born in Japan, though they didn’t meet there. From the fishing village in southern Honshu where he was born, Junzo had come to America around 1920 to check up on his oldest brother, and the two siblings for a while traveled throughout Southern California as migrant workers, harvesting melons, grapes, dates, and almonds. At some point, Junzo became involved with a family named Noda that had immigrated to Oxnard, California, from a town about 100 miles north of Junzo’s hometown in Japan. In 1930, he married Hatsuyo Noda, an act that was “semi-arranged,” according to Mark Singer, the author of the New Yorker profile.
The two young people supported themselves for a couple of years by running a fruit stand in Los Angeles, then in 1934 they began leasing 34 acres near Venice. There they grew vegetables for the LA. wholesale market. In 1937, they moved down the coast to Carlsbad and bought a house and three acres of greenhouses for flowers and vegetable seedlings. In 1940 they began raising peppers on leased land in the San Dieguito Valley and did so until 1942, when Junzo, Hatsuyo, and their six children (then born) were sent to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Three and a half years passed before the authorities released the family, and then they learned that the man back in Carlsbad to whom they had entrusted their house and all their possessions had sold everything and pocketed the proceeds.
“My father had a fairly good reputation in the produce industry as well as the flower business,” Chino says today. Mindful of that, a Los Angeles produce wholesaler and a Quaker who worked for the government “found this piece of property for my parents to raise crops on.” Chino says this occurred about 1946. Junzo at first leased the place from A.M. Dunn, a holder of huge spreads of land in the San Dieguito Valley. By 1952 the Japanese farmer was able to purchase from his landlord 56 acres. He paid $1000 an acre.
That acreage still constitutes the Chino Ranch. Roughly triangular in shape, it lies just north of the Fairbanks Ranch Polo Club and the Morgan Run Resort, its boundaries marked by Via de la Valle, Calzada del Bosque, and the San Dieguito River. A crow flying from one of the strawberry fields to the courtyard of Mille Fleurs in the heart of Rancho Santa He’s tiny commercial district would traverse only a mile.
The site “has some limitations,” Tom Chino says. “It’s very sandy, which can be good and bad.” The sandiness allows it to drain well. “But the native fertility of the soil is very poor. So we have to add compost and manures and things like that.” Water, of course, must also be added. On the other hand, the microclimate favors vegetables. “Ten miles further inland, the day-time temperature runs from eight to ten degrees higher,” Mark Singer points out in the New Yorker article. “The morning air humidity at the [Chinos’] farm averages around forty percent — compared with about eighty-five percent in the prolific farm belt of central Florida, where the produce has a more watery, less concentrated flavor.”
Buildings occupy part of the 56 acres, and the riverbed interferes with cultivation of some sections, leaving only about 48 acres usable, according to Chino. Compared to the huge farming enterprises of the Midwest, that may sound minuscule. But viewed within San Diego County’s agricultural context, it’s a large operation. That’s not because the San Diego County agricultural scene is insignificant. When one measures the dollar value of agricultural goods produced here ($1.14 billion in 1997), San Diego County ranks tenth of all the counties in the United States. Those dollars for the most part are generated on small farms. We have more of them than any other county in the nation. “Of the 6,565 farms in [San Diego County], 4,298 of them, or 65 percent, are nine or fewer acres,” reports the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures on its web site. The agriculture department says the number of small farms has been on the rise, increasing from 3522 in 1982 to 4298 in 1992. “While our farms are growing in number, they are getting smaller — from an average of 101 acres in 1982 to 79 in 1992. That’s less than one-quarter of the statewide average farm size of 373 acres,” the department says.
The largest share of those billion-plus dollars in revenue derives not from vegetables but from flowers and other nursery plants. They account for more than $700 million, followed by fruit and nut crops ($215 million). Vegetables trail in a distant third place, with $112 million generated in 1997. Of the vegetables, tomatoes are most important ($30 million), followed by herbs ($16.7 million), cucumbers ($16 million), and mushrooms ($15.5 million). The county, needless to say, doesn’t publish the dollar value of such Chino family crops as cardoon or purple Chinese long beans.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Junzo Chino wasn’t growing those, but rather concentrating on conventional items in demand by buyers at the LA. wholesale produce market: tomatoes, wax beans and peppers in the summer, followed by cauliflower, curly endive, red cabbage, and celery in the cool season. On occasion, plant breeders would bring him pet projects “that they thought were charming,” Tom says. “They knew that my father had an interest in seeing other things.” Junzo would grow some of these novelties: brown peppers for example, or golden peppers (then a rarity). Tom says his father also helped the University of California test new crops. But, “My parents had to raise a family, so they grew varieties they knew they could sell,” Tom adds. And the family had no means of selling items that didn’t interest the unimaginative supermarket-chain buyers.
That changed in the summer of 1969, the year the Vegetable Shop opened. Tom Chino says that from the start his parents envisioned an unusual role for their roadside stand. Such stands traditionally have been places for farmers to unload leftovers—items they have failed to sell to commercial buyers. “But we wanted to be different,” Chino says, explaining that his parents reserved their very best items for the stand. They also “had a comprehension that unusual things were good for the stand.” So they began offering some.
Still, they were cautious and started out small; Chino guesses that for the first two or three years, they may have sold 10 percent of their production through the stand. It was open only in summertime. “Then it started to expand,” Chino says. “The corn became very popular, and in the wintertime we did strawberries.... My parents were smart enough and wise enough to realize that the business at the stand was very good. So we devoted more effort to it and more land.” By the end of 1978, the family was selling all it grew through the Vegetable Shop. That was the same year Hatsuyo had a nonfatal heart attack. Her husband had suffered one four years earlier, and with the health of the two elders faltering, the future of the farm might have been uncertain. But the development of the Vegetable Shop had unloosed new energies upon the Rancho Santa He acreage. Those energies principally have sprung from four of Junzo and Hatsuyo’s offspring.
Two of the older sons had gone to Stanford and later become surgeons. Two others developed careers with the County of San Diego—one as a juvenile-court referee and the other as a mosquito-eradication supervisor. One daughter, after studying textile design, married and settled in Los Angeles. But the younger sister, Kazumi (known as Kay), returned to the family homestead during her sophomore year at the University of Southern California and remained there. Three Chino sons also came back: Frank after studying geology for a while at San Jose State; Fred after an Army hitch that eventually had him maintaining nuclear warheads in Fairbanks, Alaska; and Tom after getting an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley (he majored in anatomy and physiology). Tom changed his mind about a medical career, then worked for several years in a cancer research lab at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, and he put in a year as a neurobiology researcher at the Salk Institute.
By 1978, however, he had decided to devote himself to the vegetable farm. Today, he, Kay, Fred, and Frank are the active business partners in Chino Nojo, Inc., the family’s corporate entity. (Junzo died in 1990, Hatsuyo in 1992.) Kay, Fred, and Frank reside on the property. Tom lives with his wife, Nina MacConnel, and their nine-year-old son in Encinitas. But seven days a week, he’s at the farm by 5:00 a.m., and he usually doesn’t leave until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.
It is Tom, a broad-chested man of 49 with a broad, sun-burnished face, who most often has assumed the role of family spokesman. In that role, he’s not one to gush information, to volunteer facts or direct the conversation. He asks a lot of questions, and he gives the impression he likes doing that more than answering them. But he also projects a sense of courteousness so refined that it feels almost ceremonial. When I asked him questions, he often would pause for a beat and say, “Oh, I see.” Always he delivered succinct answers.
In his New Yorker article, Mark Singer credits Tom for the increasingly complex cropping strategics that developed at the Chino farm toward the end of the 1970s. “Junzo and Hatsuyo had fertilized with chicken manure, controlled weeds without herbicides, avoided disease-prone plants,” Singer writes, continuing that Tom stuck to these principles but added “myriad elaborations. Previously, Junzo might have grown, say, four hundred two-hundred-foot rows of one variety of pepper. Now Tom planted only fifty rows but a hundred varieties. He began ordering seeds from Europe, setting up test plots, studying technical journals experimenting with various cropping systems.... The question Tom and his sister and brothers were now asking was: How can we raise vegetables that will gratify the most subtle palate?”
Tom Chino says customers helped drive this evolution. “Some were quite sophisticated and would mention, say, a variety of green bean that they’d seen in Europe that had a wonderful taste. And so we would investigate.” The Chinos would plant small amounts “And if it looked really good, maybe we’d expand it.” This attention to quality caught the eye of certain discerning chefs. In the late ‘70s, Alice Waters began having Chino produce flown every week to her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, and Waters alerted her friend Wolfgang Puck to the quality of what the Chino family was producing. As a result, Puck has someone from his Hollywood flagship, Spago, pick up Chino fruit and vegetables once a week during the winter and spring and twice a week in summer. Perhaps eight San Diego restaurateurs are steady customers, Chino estimates.
The bulk of the Vegetable Shop customers, however, “are regular families,” Chino said. “We have customers who are Mexican laborers who come here to buy the corn because they know that it’s very good. Even though it’s expensive.” (The Chinos’ usual price for corn is six dollars for a dozen ears.) Chino paused for a few seconds, then added, “That doesn’t mean that Mexican laborers don’t have a sophisticated palate. In some sense, it’s more sophisticated than the person who cultivates (such sophistication].” He mentioned the truffle growers in the Périgord region of France. “They’ll eat the truffle in a simple preparation, because it gives them that integral essence of the flavor of the truffle. Whereas other people who have more money will eat it with foie gras or whatever. But you don’t get the essence of the raw truffle. It’s the same thing with corn. You can fancy it up and mix it with grains and other things.” But when you do you miss the pleasure of the taste in its purest form.
Back in the Midwest and on the Northeastern seaboard, sweet corn traditionally has been ready to eat sometime in July, reaching full production in August and September. In contrast, Southern California farmers have always enjoyed a longer growing season, with the first ears ripening in June and the bounty persisting until sometime between Labor Day and the middle of October. After the Chino family became serious about running the Vegetable Shop, however, they realized it was in their interest to try to extend this season even further. “The longer we have corn to sell, the better off we are,” Chino says.
Just because you decide you’d like to grow corn for a longer portion of the year doesn’t mean you can turn around and do that. Corn grows only within a certain range of temperatures. The minimum depends upon the variety, but the range is roughly 45 to 55 degrees. Exposure to below 32 degrees will kill a mature corn plant, and Chino says from mid-November to mid-January, the Chino Ranch typically gets frost on the ground 50 percent of the nights. That first frost in November ends the Chinos’ corn-harvesting season.
On the other hand, the ground itself never freezes. So if you plant corn seeds and cover them with plastic, you can start growing corn early. This is what the Chinos have come to do. They put their first corn seeds in the ground on January 15, then cover them with plastic mulch. Protected by the covering, the seeds sprout and grow to a height of several inches before openings have to be cut to give the seedlings more room. Then there’s a period in which they can still survive an occasional frost. “That’s because corn is a grass,” Chino explains. “And during the young, immature stage, the growing point is below the ground.”
More precisely, corn is Zea mays, “one of three related grasses in the tribe Maydeae, a member of the family Gramineae,” writes Betty Fussell in her encyclopedic 1992 book, The Story of Corn. “There are thousands of varieties of corn,” Fussell adds, “so many that taxonomists...group these varieties loosely into three hundred races for the Western Hemisphere alone.”
Sweet corn such as that raised by the Chinos is only a tiny part of a huge picture. One of corn’s interesting features is that it lacks the ability to reproduce itself without human intervention. “Not only does the husk wrap the seeds so tightly that they cannot disperse, but the seeds are so tightly massed that, if a shucked ear happens to be buried in earth, the young shoots die from overcrowding,” Fussell points out.
If corn can’t survive unless humans free the kernels for planting, the question, then, of how corn first arose is an obvious one. The oldest known corncobs are a tiny form discovered in southern Mexico and thought to be perhaps 5000 years old. No wild progenitor of them has been found, and some scientists think none ever existed, that corn instead resulted from the accidental hybridization of two other plants. Over the last 60 years, the debate on these points has reached such acrimonious levels that people refer to it as the Corn War. Arguments over the genetic details continue today. But most authorities agree that man began growing corn somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 years ago. Most likely, domestication happened first in central Mexico.
By the arrival of Columbus, corn had become a crucial source of food and an object of religious devotion for many of the Indians of the New World. Columbus in 1493 carried samples back to Europe, but for a long time, his fellow Europeans remained unimpressed. To a culture founded on barley, oats, and wheat, both the physical design and the reproductive characteristics of corn seemed bizarre. Bread made from it “is drye and hard, having very small fatnesse or moysture,” scoffed one 16th Century English historian. “It nourisheth but little and is evill of digestion, nothing comparable to the bread made of Wheat...”
Early English settlers of the New World were less contemptuous. Pilgrims at Plymouth stole corn from the local Indians, and its role in saving them from starvation has prompted at least one archeologist to conclude that corn was “the bridge over which English civilization crept, tremblingly and uncertainly at first, then boldly and surely, to a foothold and a permanent occupation of America.” Of course, the Indians had long appreciated the value of corn as a food source. But once the colonists became established, they began looking at corn in a way the Indians had never considered: namely, as an object that could be made more productive through scientific experimentation.
The natives, says Fussell, had always been “less concerned with productivity than with purity. Indian tribes had carefully selected seed to preserve purity of color and type because each color had sacred meaning as well as food meaning.” The Indians knew that if they grew yellow and white corn too close together, mixed ears would result, but they had no idea, nor did they much care, about the mechanism that caused this. They just wanted to avoid it. White men, in contrast, “wanted to know what power it was because they wanted to control it,” writes Fussell. “The white man’s approach was founded on the principle that cross-breeding is better than inbreeding.”
Some, like Puritan minister Cotton Mather and founding father Ben Franklin, took a scientific approach to their observations and plantings of corn. But breakthroughs also came about by chance. A big one occurred after an Ohio farmer named Robert Reid moved to Illinois, taking with him a reddish strain of corn that was originally from Virginia. It fared so poorly in his new home that in the spring of 1847 he filled in his “missing” stands of corn with a yellow “dent” variety that had been grown by the Indians in the Northeast for centuries. A new variety blessed with a prodigious productive capacity resulted, and in the years that followed, Robert and his son James strove to improve it — picking ears that were long, smooth, and devoid of the reddish color. It became known as Reid’s Yellow Dent, and it proliferated, Fussell points out, at a time when America was developing new appetites for corn. “The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had opened new lands for settlement and developed new markets for corn-on-the-hoof. In Cincinnati hogs were processed for oil in what became known as the ‘land whale’ era, and then in Chicago, when railroads superseded canals, hogs were processed for every possible edible part. Increased corn production through Reid’s Dent helped save the Union during the Civil War.” By the time the war ended, Fussell says, the value of America’s corn crop had become five times greater than the combined value of all the other cereal and vegetable crops that the country was then producing.
And the wonders were only beginning. Farmers who grew corn after the Civil War—working their hardest to produce as much as possible — harvested an average of 20 to 30 bushels per acre. Last year, in contrast, the national average for American farmers had climbed to 127 bushels per acre, according to the National Corn Growers Association. What happened in the interval was hybridization practiced with greater and greater sophistication. Hybrid corn results when the pollen from one type of corn falls on the silks of another type. Bred in this manner, the two parents can produce ears of corn far more productive than that of their nonhybrid predecessors. Through selective breeding, seed producers also can create corns with other desirable characteristics. The first scientist to cross corn plants in a controlled manner and record the increase in vigor that resulted did so in 1877. Shortly after the turn of the century, European scientists further clarified the nature of corn’s amazing “hybrid vigor.” They learned that by fertilizing a corn plant with its own pollen, one can quickly develop “pure lines.” But these inbred lines are smaller, weaker, and less productive. In contrast, “the first-generation progeny of matings of two weak, unproductive inbred lines exhibited an astounding restoration of vigor and yield,” writes Henry A. Wallace in Corn and Its Early Fathers.
In 1917 a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Station invented a method of producing hybrid corn seed commercially, and in 1926 Wallace founded a company to develop, produce, and market hybrid seed. Relentless, revolutionary, and yet pragmatic, Wallace preached a gospel of hybrid corn that by the late 1930s began to win converts by the legions. Whereas less than 1 percent of the Corn Belt acreage was planted with hybrids in 1933, within ten years that number had exploded to 78 percent. Today American corn farmers plant only seed produced from the mating of two different corn parents. It enables them to produce an annual crop worth $24.4 billion dollars — some 9.4 billion bushels of the stuff. (A typical bushel weighs 56 pounds and contains about 72,800 kernels.)
What do they do with all those kernels? “More than half of the crop puts meat on America’s dinner table,” the corn-growers’ Web site informs visitors. A single bushel fed to livestock “produces 5.6 pounds of retail beef, 13 pounds of retail pork, 19.6 pounds of chicken, or 28 pounds of catfish.” Humans, of course, also still eat the milled grain of field corn, as they did in pre-Colombian and colonial days. But a stunning array of other uses (some 3500 by the National Corn Growers Association's estimate) has developed. From corn kernels, refiners extract starches that go into products ranging from adhesive glues to fireworks to printing paper. They get corn syrups and sugars that sweeten not only soda pops but thousands of other food products — and make their way into such surprising destinations as shoe polish, tobacco products, and leather tanneries. They derive alcohols that go into our gas tanks as well as our shot glasses.
In this vast sea of corn and its derivatives, you have to look for a moment to find sweet corn — the stuff we eat on the cob every summer, that fills tins in the canned-vegetable aisles and bags in the frozen-food case. Yet in itself, sweet corn ranks as one of America’s most important vegetable crops. Farmers grow it on more than 650,000 acres in 27 states, and in 1990, they sold what they grew for $470 million. California is second in importance after Florida among states that produce sweet corn eaten fresh (as opposed to that which is canned or frozen).
In lineage, too, sweet corn is no upstart. Scientists now believe that it arose from a mutation in an ancient Peruvian race of corn. Although sugars in the corn kernels normally turn into starches as the kernels mature, the mutation interfered with this process. As a result, the mature ears of that first sweet corn tasted sweeter and creamier than any corn ever had before. From Peru or Central America, the new variety made its way to Mexico and farther north. (Meanwhile, similar mutations may also have occurred in other places.) By the 18th Century, sweet corn had reached the colonies. Thomas Jefferson made some notes about it in his garden Journal in 1810. By the 1850s, Americans had figured out how to boil young sweet corn, seal it in tin cans, and have it available year-round.
“Ironically,” Betty Fussell writes in The Story of Corn, “the push to create new sweet corns, which today are synonymous with fresh corn-on-the-cob, began with the creation of the can.” Fussell says the nation’s growing appetite for sweet corn “is revealed in the records of the U.S. Patent Office,” which lists only 6 varieties in 1858, 12 in 1866, 33 in 1884, and 63 in 1899.
Throughout these years, nearly all the sweet-corn varieties were white, but in 1902, the Burpee Company introduced a yellow type called Golden Bantam. “This variety had excellent quality, wide adaptability, and good disease resistance, and rapidly dispelled the old prejudice against yellow corn,” according to Purdue University’s sweet-corn Web site. Golden Bantam became the standard, and many of the popular white varieties were converted to yellow by crossing them with the new taste sensation.
Tom Chino says by the time the Vegetable Shop opened, one of the most popular sweet corns in Southern California was a yellow type called Golden Jubilee. Chino’s parents planted it, but they also offered a white variety known as Silver Queen. “It tends to be somewhat sweeter than Golden Jubilee,” says Chino, though he adds that its sugars start turning into starches the moment the ears are picked (a feature of all traditional sweet corns). The Chinos, of course, sold their ears just hours after harvesting them. “Stores could never do that,” Chino says. Whatever the reason—its greater sweetness or freshness or some combination of dements — the Chinos’ Silver Queen dazzled those who tried it “We had great success with it.”
Chino says that during the years that followed, an idea spread throughout Southern California that "white corn was much better quality than yellow.” Today he thinks that notion is wrong. For one thing, he says, white corns generally don’t have as much aroma as their yellow counterparts. (Cooking releases the complex blend of volatile compounds—acetone, ethanol, carbon dioxide, and so on — that create what we recognize as corn smell. But that aroma can be more or less intense from one variety to another.) Still, the demand for white corn has become so overwhelming that the Chinos feel they have to carry it to be competitive. “Some people are racist about corn,” Chino jokes. “They’ll tolerate some yellow specks in it, but if you have all yellow corn, they won’t want it.”
Far more significant than the color of the kernels is the amount of sugar they contain, Chino says. Among traditional sweet corns (what corn cognoscenti now call “sugary” corn), this quantity is fairly consistent. At harvest maturity, sugary corn kernels contain twice as much sugar as field corn and about eight to ten times more phytoglycogen, which gives corn a milky texture. For more than 30 years, however, corn geneticists have been producing mutants that are even sweeter. One class is known as “sugar enhanced.” Even more popular are the “supersweet” varieties. Their kernels at harvest have four to eight times as much sugar as field corn, and they enjoy the further advantage of retaining their sweetness for much longer after harvest.
Supersweets in general have less phytoglycogen than traditional sugary corns. “Some people think that ’s a defect. They’re not as milky, maybe,” Chino comments. Also, “supersweets have a tendency to have a crisp flush — the inside of the kernel tends to be crisp, rather than floury like the normal sugary varieties.” Chino adds that because supersweet corn was developed from field corn, the membrane that surrounds the kernels of some varieties is thicker than that of traditional sugary corns. “So people can interpret the supersweet corn as being tougher.”
Still, the sweetness alone is a powerful factor. Chino points out that taste panels have ascribed 85 percent of the overall flavor of sweet corn to its sweetness and texture. People are more attuned to those two things, “rather than the aroma and flavor components.” He sees the fact that white corn now dominates the market in Southern California as proof of this. (“It’s obvious that the aroma of white corn is less than yellow corn or bicolored corn.")
Chino says his family began to test varieties of the supersweets in the 1970s. The first ones were tough and yellow, but the Chinos eventually found some types that merited cultivation. I asked if the Chinos had any qualms about this switch. (I'd talked to one fellow in a county agriculture department office who told me he didn’t even like the supersweets, that he found them too sweet.) “Oh,” Chino said, lowering his head in a manner that for a second suggested shyness, “I think that’s all horseshit.” He burst into a hearty laugh. “If you have the two corns side by side, say you have Silver Queen versus one of the super-sweets, the difference is so dramatic you wouldn’t want to eat [the older stuff]. The super-sweets are so dramatically sweeter, and there’s a certain crispness to it that is very nice.”
From a farmer’s — as opposed to an eater’s — perspective, supersweets have some undesirable qualities. Because of the high proportion of sugars to starches, the dried kernels of all sweet corns have a shriveled appearance, and in the supersweets this characteristic is even more pronounced. (In fact, the gene that accounts for the extreme sweetness is known as Shrunken 2.) As a result, the outer membrane has a tendency to crack. “Which is bad,” says Chino, “because the seed then doesn’t imbibe water properly.” Cracking also gives bacteria or fungus access to the seed’s interior, and once there, they’re apt to flourish on the profusion of sugars. (“If that was starch, the fungus would have to waste energy to try to break it down before it could consume it.”) Making matters worse, the supersweets take longer to germinate in cold ground, “so there’s that much more time for things to go wrong.”
If the supersweets are planted close enough to traditional sugary varieties to be sprinkled with the pollen of the starchier corn, some of their kernels will have the lower sugar content. The Chinos solved that problem about ten years ago when they began growing supersweet corn exclusively. I noted how the Chinos have dealt with some of the supersweet seeds’ other drawbacks when I observed Chino and his helpers plant on a blustery day in March.
A big plastic bucket held the seed, which at first glance looked neon pomegranate in color, but Chino explained that the weird hue signaled the presence of a fungicidal dust. (Its manufacturers had added the color to remind agricultural workers of the fungicide’s presence.) Under the dusty coating, the seeds resembled wrinkled and miniaturized potato chips, creamy white in color and so thin they were almost translucent. It was hard to imagine that each fragile flake held the germ of a fat ear that one would have to hold in both hands to eat.
Five workers helped Chino plant on this occasion — two Mexican fellows and three men from Japan. (Among its fulltime field crew of 16 to 20, the Chino Ranch since Junzo’s days has always hosted a small number of Japanese agricultural exchange students. Chino converses with them in Japanese, a language he learned sketchily in childhood and improved with later schooling.) When I arrived, the members of the planting crew were already walking on beds of earth that were each about a foot and a half wide. The center of each row was a little more than five feet from the centers of its neighbors.
As he walked, each man jabbed a boxy planting tool into the damp earth. A foot at the bottom of the tool regulated the depth of the hole being created. Into the top of the tool, the men inserted two seeds, withdrawn from apron pockets. “You try to plant pairs of seeds because they seem to break through the ground more easily,” Chino explained. Later, the smaller of the sprouts would be culled. Counting the number of seeds one put in the hole was tricky, Chino added. I guessed that this was because the planters wore gloves to protect themselves from the fungicide, but Chino said no. “They’re very thin gloves. The problem is just that if you spend too much time being exact in how many seeds you’ve planted, you take too much time planting the corn.”
The process of preparing the ground to receive the seeds had begun back in November, Chino told me. “In the fall, the corn gets harvested, and afterward, there are stalks remaining in the ground. If they’re in large pieces, we have a mower that shaves the top.” The Chinos also use a tractor to pull a disk through the soil, loosening it to facilitate the removal of the old irrigation lines. “Then the field has to be disked again to make it sort of level. And then we spread it with manure or compost and we plow that in.”
Once the old stalks have broken down enough, the field is leveled again and the soil tested. “You want to have about 150 pounds of phosphate and potash in the ground, per acre.” Sometimes Chino and his siblings use organic amendments such as manure or blood meal. “Sometimes we feel like we need more nutrients, and we might use some phosphate or potassium.” The ground is furrowed and the fertilizer placed in the center of the depressions. “It can’t be out to the sides,” Chino says, “because the roots won’t extend over there. The drip irrigation concentrates the roots in small areas and if the fertilizer isn’t there, it will be wasted.”
Next, a tractor pulling a disk hiller collapses the ditches and creates little mounds, and in the final, most labor-intensive stage, water mains are installed and connected to drip tape that runs through the middle of the bed top. The corn will be planted four inches away from the tape, on both sides of it. With eight to nine inches between each plant, the Chinos might harvest 400 to 500 ears per row or something like 16,000 to 25,000 ears per acre. “But that’s the ideal,” Chino interjects. “You never really get that many.”
He says another ideal for his family is to start picking the first corn early in May and then to have a constant supply of it through November. But to get this, they can’t simply plant all the corn for a given year at the same time. Even though ripe supersweet corn stays sweet for longer than its starchier counterparts, once it ripens, it starts losing water content. Left on the stalk for too long, “it becomes chewy,” Chino says. There’s only a two- to three-day window in which the picking is ideal.
To have corn ripening every 3 days, the Chinos also can’t just start planting on January 15 and plant every 3 days after that. Growing corn is a little like filling a one-quart measuring cup with water. It takes 32 ounces to reach the top line, whether you add one ounce per hour or you turn on the tap and collect four cups in a few seconds. In the case of corn, what it needs is heat (measured in a unit known as the “degree day”). Each variety requires a certain amount of heat to produce ears that are ready It) harvest. So a corn farmer can get the heat into his plants by starting them in January (when it’s colder) and growing them, say, for more than four months. Or he can plant them in July and watch them shoot up in 55 days. After the first planting in January, the Chinos wait 15 days to plant again, they plant again 13 days later, then 10 days later, and so on. Otherwise, they’d have a huge amount of corn all ripening in May—when the demand is not the highest. “The greatest number of sales occur when school’s out,” says Chino. “And it’s not necessarily because people vacation then. It’s because it’s an easy item for families to serve, and I think kids like it.” He thinks most kids “can tell the difference between really good corn and bad corn.”
After the Chinos harvest the first corn of the year, they mow off the tops of the exhausted plants and they plant more seed in the middle of the mound, between the old stalks, where nutrients remain in the soil. About 70 percent of the family’s corn is double-cropped in this manner, a necessity “because there’s a limited amount of land,” Chino reminded me. About 60 percent of the arable land on the Chino Ranch is used for growing corn. I asked if the family reserves any of that acreage to grow its own sweet-corn seed. He shook his head. To produce hybrid sweet-corn seed, you have to grow both the parent lines. That requires a lot of space. “And then to produce the corn, typically what you do is to have two rows or four rows of the female and one row of the male.” Seed growers cut off the tassels of the “mother” plants so that they won’t fertilize themselves but will instead receive pollen from the neighboring “fathers.” All this requires a lot of specialized machinery. Chino says it would make no economic sense for the Chinos to do it.
Instead they buy seed from growers, almost all of whom are located in Idaho and Washington (where conditions favor seed production). I had visions of the seed growers working hard to tempt corn farmers like the Chinos into trying the newest seed varieties, but Chino disabused me of this notion. “You sort of have to finagle around” to find out what new corn varieties have come along that might merit testing, he said. The seed breeders ought to be the best source of such information. But usually the)' don’t bother to give small growers access to it, according to Chino. He added that the seed producers sometimes even cut exclusive deals with big growers. “A very large corn grower will buy out a particular variety of new seeds that gives him some advantage for a year.” Usually, the advantage has to do with production — getting the maximum yield per acre—rather than flavor, Chino said. “It’s easy to market lots of corn, but it’s hard to market flavor.”
He claims that to some extent seed companies have a vested interest in keeping small growers uninformed. “Because they have a lot of different varieties and they’re producing a lot of seed and they want to sell the seed that they have. They set an agenda for what they want to sell.” Furthermore, Chino says most seed salesmen represent only a few seed producers and “they just know their varieties.” So to find new types of seed that might produce corn the Chinos would want to grow, Chino scours the commercial seed catalogs for clues. He says the catalog writers are “very conscious about what they say.” “Sweet” and “tender” are words that grab his attention. “Or ‘good eating quality.’ If they just say ‘a quality corn,’ you’re afraid of that.”
Size also concerns him. “Our ideal corn is extremely sweet, with a wonderful aroma when it’s cooked, very tender, and wonderful size. It has to look like you have a big ear of corn. If they’re just puny little ears that are very sweet, people will think they’re being cheated.”
The matter of size can be tricky. Chino has found corn varieties that produce huge, great-tasting ears when grown in the long summer days of places like Maine. But in areas where the summer days are shorter (like San Diego), the ears turn out much smaller. Even though the flavor is the same, “You could never sell that corn here,” Chino declares. “A customer would say, ‘Oh, I don’t see food value. It’s not big enough.’ ”
Chino also pays attention to how susceptible different types of corn are to various diseases. An important one is rust, which mostly affects corn grown later in the season and picked from September to November. “Since we want to extend the season, we tend to see it. It can depress the yield tremendously. So growers like me try to find varieties that are rust-tolerant.”
The Chinos are able to ignore a few things that larger growers have to worry about. To harvest the corn, Chino uses a knife to slice off each ear from its anchor point, but larger growers usually cultivate varieties with ears that break off (another characteristic that can be bred in). This is the case at the Witman Ranch, located a couple of miles east of the Wild Animal Park in the San Pasqual Valley. With 180 acres devoted to corn, the Witmans are the biggest sweet-corn producers in San Diego County; their ears fill the corn bins at local Henry’s markets in the summertime. Once the Witman harvest starts (usually in mid- to late June), a crew of 15 snaps those ears off the plants every morning starting at 5:30 a.m. Matt Witman, who runs the daily operations, says they don’t use knives because of safety considerations. “With knives, you have accidents.” Elsewhere, the corn-harvesting machines used by the state’s biggest growers also require ears that can be broken from their stems. The corn “has to have a certain anatomy,” Chino says. “But in our situation, we don’t need that.”
A similar characteristic is the appearance of the “wrapper,” as the husk is known to corn growers. “It’s like they’re talking about cigars,” Chino says. If the Chinos grew their corn to be sold in supermarkets, they’d have to pay attention to the wrapper and the “flags” — the leaves at the top of the ear that bend over. “The longer the flags, the more beautiful, and the leaves have to be a beautiful dark green color, with no imperfections.” That’s the institutional vision. But since the Chinos sell their corn themselves, they can concentrate on taste and size.
The only way to know for sure if a new type of seed will score well in those two areas is to order it, plant it, and see what happens. Chino says his parents did this to some extent when they first started growing corn for the stand. “But [the testing] wasn’t maybe to the pathological degree that it is now,” he acknowledges. “I find it interesting. There’s always something different. There’s always a new variety. And if there’s an improvement, we ought to know about it.”
The number of varieties he tests depends on what’s available from the seed companies. “It varies from year to year,” he says. Last year, for example, he grew substantial quantities of about 20 different varieties throughout the season, plus he tested an additional 13 types. This year he’s only growing 3 or 4 types in quantity. But he’s testing an additional 8 or 9 others. (As they’ve done in the past, the Chinos later this summer will plant one type of popcorn, an ornamental called Kiddy Pop that’s multicolored on the cob. “It’s kind of cute,” says Chino. “You can put the whole cob in a bag in a microwave, and you can pop the cob.”)
To see how they would fare very early in the season, Tom and his helpers planted the test Varieties in January and February. I wanted to peek into the sex lives of these plants. If a corn plant isn’t fertilized, its infant ears won’t grow into hefty things lined with plump, juicy kernels. Instead, the ears remain infantile and undeveloped. I had to wait until the end of April, however, until the first plants were mature enough to allow for any such voyeurism. Even then, the shortness of the stalks surprised me when Chino and I arrived in their midst. No plant topped the four-foot mark. But they looked healthy, extending glossy emerald arms skyward and squirming, as if with pleasure, in the light breeze and hazy sunlight.
Out of the tops of many of the plants leaned tassels that had started to appear about two weeks before, according to Chino. The tassels are the corn plant’s male organs. They grow in branches that hold hundreds of little flowers contained in spikelets. Each flower, in turn, produces tiny oblong anthers. When the anthers are ripe, they shed a huge quantity of pollen grains — something like 10 to 18 million granules for each plant. Like sperm, the vast majority of these will die. But the air will waft some to the silks.
Out in a cornfield, the bobbing tassels grabbed my attention. In contrast, I had to scan for a moment to find the silks. Then I began to spot them: tiny cheerleading pompoms pale chartreuse in color that had sprouted from the tops of what looked like puny corn ears tucked into the center of the plants’ luxuriant foliage. Chino snapped one of the undeveloped ears off the stalk and peeled away the leaves to reveal a baby corn. “It has a sort of mellow sweetness to it, doesn’t it?” he asked as I munched on it. It did.
He opened up another one and pointed out what I hadn’t noticed on those prior occasions when baby corn had turned up on my plate in a restaurant or I’d passed it in the produce aisle. The tiny bumps on the tiny cobs each contain an ovary that sends up a single strand of silk. “The tassels have to be mature before the silk comes out,” said Chino. “That’s because, depending on the temperature, the silk is really only viable for maybe three or tour days.” If, during that time, grains of pollen fall on the sticky surfaces of the silk strands, pollen tubes will form within the strands to carry the grains down to the eggs at the base. Once fertilized, the eggs develop into succulent kernels. “But if an insect gets into the silk, the development can be spotty,” Chino said.
I asked if he’d be harvesting corn on Mother’s Day. “Yeah — one or two ears! The early variety is supposed to be over there.” He pointed to a barren patch of ground. “It didn’t germinate.”
As things turned out, Chino didn’t start picking enough corn to sell until more than two weeks after Mother’s Day. A few days after he started harvesting, I met him at 7:00 a.m. near the simple wooden structure that houses the Vegetable Shop. The stand was shuttered and wouldn’t open for business for three more hours. However, early morning is a good time to pick corn, Chino informed me. The ears might not be at their absolute maximum sugar level. “Since there’s no photosynthesis at night, there’s no production of sugar then.” Furthermore, corn plants respire in the nighttime, and they probably use some of their sugar reserves to live and grow. But this is a subtle consideration — so subtle that it’s probably insignificant, Chino conceded — and one that’s certainly outweighed by the advantages offered by the morning’s coolness. Although the Chinos’ produce stand lacks refrigeration, Chino said if the corn is cool when it arrives, the sugar content of the ears doesn’t deteriorate. (Once home, corn should be chilled until eaten, experts concur.)
Out in the field, the corn that had been pollinating a month before had shot up to six feet. “It’s as high as an elephant’s ear,” Chino deadpanned. From that emerald forest he was harvesting maybe 300 to 400 ears per day. “The normal production is like 2000 a day,” he said. “But since the kids are still in school, really the sales aren’t that great for corn anyway.”
I asked if the number of kernels in each ear affected the flavor. Was it true that smaller kernels were more tender?
Like the notion that super-sweet corn is too sweet, this idea Chino also dismissed. “The tenderness is a factor of the thickness of the pericarp [kernel membrane],” he declared in a tone that brooked no argument. “It’s like small potatoes versus large potatoes.” Small potatoes look younger and more tender — but looks can be deceiving, he asserted. In the same way, people think that corn with smaller kernels arranged in more rows looks more refined. “It looks better when you have one side leaf open, like many stores do. But it’s not necessarily better. It’s just another visual aspect that’s important for the commercial grower.”
To prove his point, Chino strode between the rows, looking for a ripe ear of one of the test varieties. “Right now it’s a hunting-and-pecking situation,” he muttered. But he found one, then fished another variety from a neighboring row. Stripping both open, he pointed out the relative smallness of the first ear’s kernels. Besides being larger, the kernels of the second ear were arranged in wiggly lines, a fluke of this particular ear’s development. “Take a bite,” Chino ordered. “Just try to eat in the middle.”
My tape of the interview at this point records a noise somewhere between a moan and a shout. I know it came from my lips, and I think my knees sagged at the same moment. What I remember clearly is the taste detonated by the corn juice and pulp in my mouth. It was sweet without being cloying; complex and lively. It was so tender it made me think I should always eat corn raw. The second ear amazed me too. “Now try this," Chino said, offering a third variety. I felt profligate, like someone opening bottles of wine to take one sip.
I took a second bite of each, and it seemed that Chino was right, that the ear with the bigger, wiggly kernels was the most tender of the three. Chino tasted also, chomping into each ear, chewing for a moment, then spitting out the contents.
“The first two have a high sugar content,” he pronounced. “Also, there’s an acidity that makes them more sprightly. They’re more bright tasting.” The third one, in contrast, was not only less tender but also “kind of flat tasting.”
Chino said that all the Chinos’ new varieties are tested raw in the field in this manner, “and they’re not just tasted by one person. You have to have a number of people on the panel, because everyone has a different opinion.” Ears also must be cooked to assess their aroma. For this step, the Chinos never boil the corn. “Sugar can pass through the membrane — the pericarp,” Chino said. “So if you boil it, the corn won’t be as sweet as if you cream it — cut it off the cob and cook it. Then the sugar is all there.” Based on the early findings, he thought he would plant the second corn again this August to see how it would perform toward the end of the season. “Then if it still looks okay, we’ll probably plant more of it next year.” But not too much. “This is bicolor corn, and people don’t really like bicolor corn,” he reminded me. “Down with corn racism!” he added.
On this day, Chino would be the only person harvesting corn. “You have to sort of get a feel for it,” he explained. “And if you have a lot of different varieties, it’s hard to instruct somebody in what to do.” Later in the season, when one variety predominated, he would train an assistant.
I’d hate to be that person. The picking decisions looked daunting, but Chino hustled through the rows, grabbing ears, bending them down, then using his formidable 14-inch knife to slash with samurai swiftness through their necks. Dried silk sometimes signals ripeness, he said. “But if the corn is growing quickly and it’s really warm, it won’t dry out completely.” In other words, an ear can have green silk and still be ripe. Some ears Tom squeezed, assessing the plumpness of the kernels within. Some ears he cut, then peeled open the husk to confirm his judgment. On this day, he deemed one ear with a deformed tip to be sellable, because the body of it contained so much eating material. But another ear that looked fine to me he discarded for being too young.
Months before. I’d been shocked when Tom informed me that his corn plants on average yield just one ear per plant. It did seem wasteful, he agreed. “All that effort for one lousy ear.” Under ideal conditions, say on the edge of the cornfield where a plant was exposed to more light, it might yield two full-sized ears, he said. Or sometimes slow growth over a long period could produce the same result. But other factors had prevented that from happening much this spring, he told me on the morning that I watched him harvest. “The corn has been in the ground for so long that the weeds are competing heavily with the corn,” he said. “If we had used herbicides, we could have taken care of the weeds. But we didn’t use herbicides. Also, the native fertility of the soil is down. There was so much rain that the nutrients have drained out.”
I pointed to one plant that seemed to be bearing two fat ears. When Chino cut off the lower one, however, and peeled back its husk, the ear within turned out to be only four or five inches long, with an undeveloped top. If someone were starving, he could tear several satisfying mouthfuls from it. But I could see where a customer paying 50 cents would feel shortchanged.
Many of the plants had baby ears whose development had been aborted after more highly placed siblings got fertilized. Chino said he harvests these only if a customer calls and places a special order. The Chinos don’t sell them routinely through the stand because harvesting them would “require another half an hour we don’t have.”
What about other baby vegetables, I asked. “Don’t people associate the Chino Ranch with them?”
“Baby vegetables and small minds?” he shot back.
“Well,” he continued, then paused for several long seconds. “We grew things to differentiate ourselves from the supermarkets.” Consider squash, he suggested. “The supermarkets, you know, have large squash. Because it’s picked at a more mature stage, the squash has a tougher skin so that it looks very pretty when it’s sold. With smaller squashes, picked at a younger stage, the skin is very tender, and it doesn’t look pretty after a day. It looks terrible. But we have the option of being able to harvest squash at a young stage and sell it that day, so when you look at it, it’s really pretty. And it has a nice flavor. It’s not just insipid. So we still do that, because we have something that other people can’t have.”
The same is true with the Chinos’ little French green beans. “They’re meant to be grown at that length. They’re not picked immature... Or with alpine strawberries — they’re small. But we don’t pick them because they’re small. We pick them because that’s when they’re ripe. So we really never have been ‘baby this’ and ‘baby that.’ We never pick things before they’re at maximum flavor.”
Chino tossed the harvested ears into a crate, hoisted it up on his shoulder, then headed for the Vegetable Shop. There were other fruits and vegetables to be harvested that day— more than 90 different items. There were collards, tatsoi, mizuna, mibuna, bok choy, chicory, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, radicchio, frisée, artichokes, cardoon, fennel, celeriac, fresh shelling peas, fresh cannellini beans, Chinese broccoli, celery, small pear-shaped tomatoes, squash blossoms, radishes, scallions, spring onions, epazote, cilantro, dill, nasturtium, flowering kale, mint, rosemary, lemon thyme, regular thyme, raspberries, boysenberries, 3 kinds of cabbage (green, purple, and savoy), 3 kinds of kale (Russian, regular, and Italian), 3 kinds of Swiss chard (red, green, and Bright Lights), 3 kinds of beets, 4 kinds of carrots, 4 kinds of strawberries (red alpine, white alpine, mara du bois, and California), 4 kinds of basil (Genovese, opal, lemon, and piccolo fino), 5 varieties each of green beans, turnips, and cucumbers, 8 kinds of summer squash, and 12 kinds of lettuce.
But those are other stories.