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The sweet corn processing industry was thriving in the U.S. throughout the 20th century.

Corn industry struggles across the U.S.

New analysis by the University of Illinois says the decline is “disturbing”

Forms of sweet corn are in trouble according to a new University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign analysis, which shows that production for frozen and canned products has been steadily shrinking in the U.S. over the last 27 years.

The sweet corn processing industry was thriving in the U.S. throughout the 20th century, however, study author Marty Williams, who is a USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist and affiliate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I, said that to see such success in a crop and then see signs of struggle in recent decades is a “disturbing trend.” He said it is particularly shrinking in the rainfed portions of the Midwest. 

The propriety data analyzed comes from major vegetable processing companies that kept records for 20,000 processing sweet corn fields between 1992 and 2018. The data was split into five distinct production areas and analyzed trends in planting acres, green ear mass (yield), hybrid lifespan, etc. 

“We saw a decline in acreage throughout production areas in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, the regions where most processing sweet corn production is happening. The one area that bucked the trend and showed an increase in green ear mass was in irrigated fields of Wisconsin. The steepest declines were in rainfed locations here in the Midwest, particularly Illinois,” said Williams.

Rainfed production is more variable compared with irrigation, which is increasingly risky for sweet corn production, according to the data. Wide swings in precipitation and drought at key growth stages are some of the challenges that almost always show up in yield. Williams said that this is particularly where the data showed a precipitous drop in green ear mass in recent years. 

Other causes noted from the research were climate change and consumer preference as more shoppers are choosing fresh produce over canned items. 

More key findings from the research included: 

  • The majority of hybrids (a type of corn resulting from crossbreeding), 60%, were grown only a single year
  • There was industry interest in looking for new germplasm, and new products, to grow, but most hybrids didn’t make the cut long-term
  • There was only one hybrid grown for 27 years, but the most important accounted for about one-quarter of the acres

The pattern supports the preference among sweet corn processors for “workhorse” hybrids that perform reliably and consistently across a wide range of conditions. 

Williams noted that processing sweet corn has to check more boxes than field corn or even fresh market corn on the cob in terms of maintaining its structure and flavor during cob removal, canning, or freezing. 

Williams sees potential for regional shifts in product areas like moving into locations with more irrigation infrastructure and developing more climate-resilient or stress-tolerant hybrids in the future.


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