In an industry struggling to maintain profitability, it's curious that U.S. processing sweet corn is falling so far below its potential. Yet, that's what a new study in PLOS ONE clearly demonstrates.
According to Martin Williams, an ecologist with USDA-ARS and associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois, processing sweet corn in the Midwest is grown at an average population of 24,000 plants per acre. But through years of small-plot field trials, his team has shown that certain hybrids are naturally density tolerant, and their performance improves when planted at higher population sizes. His research also indicated that increasing populations of density-tolerant hybrids improved profit to both contract growers and vegetable processors.
The results were promising, but it wasn't clear how well small-plot trials in Central Illinois translated to farmers' fields throughout the Midwest.
"While processors were aware of our early work in small-plot field trials, some -- myself included -- were sceptical about the extent to which the industry could increase efficiency by adjusting plant population size," says Williams, co-author of the PLOS ONE study. "I decided to move the research into the very fields where processing sweet corn is grown."
Williams and Illinois graduate student Daljeet Dhaliwal conducted on-farm trials throughout Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin over a five-year period. The on-farm trials started with two hybrids, but one was pulled from the project early, so the researchers focused on fields grown with 'DMC 21-84', a known density-tolerant hybrid. They coordinated with processors and growers to plant test strips at population sizes ranging from 17,000 to 44,000 plants per acre.