Sunday, June 16, 2024

NC trend: Silver Queen corn’s sad demise

A tasty treat loses its luster.

Silver Queen appears doomed. Once the most popular sweet corn in Eastern North Carolina, Silver Queen might be making its last stand.

A host of newer sweet corn varieties have emerged to challenge the longtime market king. Names like Ambrosia, Obsession and Devotion come with superior genetic profiles that make them hard for farmers to resist.

“Our farmers are definitely growing less Silver Queen than they used to,” says Tommy Batts, a commercial horticulture specialist in the Wilson office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. “You can still find it, but you have to know where to look.”

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services keeps track of almost every agricultural statistic under the sun but nothing on Silver Queen or its rivals. While the state is an ag powerhouse, corn production is minimal compared with the Midwest states. For example, Iowa farmers planed nearly 13 million acres of corn in 2021, versus about 950,000 acres in North Carolina, federal data shows. 

Still, Tar Heels have long loved their Silver Queen. So what’s behind its decline? “Basically, it’s an old technology,” Batts notes. “It was developed in the early 1960s and still has the same limitations it had when it was new.” 

Silver Queen’s two main drawbacks are its short shelf life and long growing time, says Jonathan Schultheis, a professor at N.C. State University and a leading sweet corn expert.

“We all know the best time to serve Silver Queen is the day it’s picked,” he says. “Wait a day or two longer and it quickly loses its distinctive taste.”

There’s some science involved. “Sugars in Silver Queen convert to starch much faster than the newer varieties,” he says. “It gets too starchy. That’s why these days you can only find it in home gardens or for local sales.” 

Also, Silver Queen takes at least 90 days to mature, compared with 75 or 80 days for newer varieties. “You’re losing money every day it sits in the field,” Schultheis adds.

The longer corn sits, the more attractive it gets for deer, raccoons, crows and armies of rapacious insects.

Newer varieties are bred to offer greater protection to pests, produce higher yields and last longer on the grocery shelves, Batts says.

“For farmers, it’s basically a business decision,” he adds. “They can make more money
with the newer varieties, with a lot fewer headaches.  Unless the market starts demanding it by name, Silver Queen has probably had its day in the sun.”

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