Smile Politely

Tracing sweet corn to the source

The Urbana Sweetcorn Festival kicks off this afternoon at 5 p.m. in downtown Urbana. The festival is taking place from 5 to 11 p.m. tonight and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow. There’s entertainment available on three stages, with headlining acts War, 33 Miles, and Days of the New, as well as other interactive activities. You can download the full entertainment schedule flier here.

However, in this preview I’m going to focus on the festival’s namesake: sweet corn. Namely, Saturn Yellow, the variety of corn which Twin Garden Farms of Harvard, Ill., is supplying for the festival. And they’re not just supplying a trivial amount of corn, either. The festival will go through more than 30,000 ears of corn by Saturday night, which poses logistical problems for local growers. “When I mention [that amount of corn], people look at me like I’m crazy,” says Susan Toalson, Executive Director of the Urbana Business Assocation, who organizes the festival.

It’s not that there aren’t local growers who could produce that amount of corn. But the problem lies in that they can’t guarantee 30,000 ears of corn for this particular weekend in August. So, the UBA, in order to make sure the festival-goers have sweet corn at the Sweetcorn Festival, needs to involve an intermediary — Wal-Mart. “The corn for this particular festival will be supplied from the Olney, Ill., distribution center,” according to Denise Becker, Wal-Mart’s Market Grocery Manager.

So, the corn will travel from Harvard, east of Rockford near the Wisconsin state line, to the Olney distribution center, and then to Urbana, a total distance of approximately 450 miles. That’s a big step up from past festivals, when the corn was sourced from outside of Illinois, maybe as far away as Colorado. According to Becker, Wal-Mart will also be supplying corn to the Grundy County Corn Festival, from September 23 to 27 in Morris, Ill. (just west of Joliet).

Enough about logistics, what about the corn itself? If you need a huge quantity of corn, Twin Garden Sales is the place to go, as they supply sweet corn (as well as 20 other vegetables) 52 weeks a year to consumers all over the country, through a network of vegetable farms that stretches from Florida to Colorado. According to Mark Hayes, President of Twin Garden Sales — who’s also a co-owner of Twin Garden Farms — their 400 acre farm in Harvard is actually one of the smaller plots among the farms they deal with across the nation, which can be as large as 3,000 acres. “There’s so much competition in the North, from farmer’s markets and direct sales from producers, that we don’t grow that much up here,” Hayes explained.

Even so, Twin Garden produces 7,000,000 ears of corn a year in Harvard, many of which are distributed by Wal-Mart. “We’ve been working with them for 12 or 13 years,” Hayes said. “We’re one of their largest produce suppliers.”

Saturn Yellow, the variety that will be consumed by Festival-goers, is “a high-end sh2 [or super-sweet] variety,” Hayes noted. “It’s a good yielder, has good tip fill, and a good barrel size.” Hayes explained that Twin Garden also has experimental HQ (high quality) hybrids that have higher sugar content, but that Wal-Mart doesn’t generally purchase those varieties yet, as they are “more experimental and more expensive.” All of Twin Garden’s corn is hand-picked.

Twin Garden has a long history in Champaign-Urbana, Hayes noted, as they used to supply produce to Eisner’s supermarkets. So this won’t be the first sweet corn that they’ve sent to Urbana, and it’s not likely to be the last.

A huge network of suppliers and distributors is necessary to get food where people want it, when they need it, and the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival is just one more example of that.

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