Young, old, urban, rural, there’s one thing all Iowans have in common. When the calendar page turns to July, you’ll find them with an ear (or three or four) of corn on the cob, enjoying the sweet golden goodness.

Many farmers have their own patch. So do some gardeners. But for those not growing their own, farmers like Van Manen Sweet Corn & Fresh Produce of Kellogg provide the season’s supply.

The Van Manens sell corn through a network of roadside stands around Newton, Grinnell, Marshalltown and Altoona, as well as local Fareway and Hy-Vee grocery stores. 

Buyers can also come to the farm. “But not as many do that as used to,” says Jacob Van Manen, a Jasper County Farm Bureau member. “When I was a kid, we would have cars lined up down the road. Now people don’t want to get their car dirty on the gravel roads.”

Jacob grew up with sweet corn. His parents started the enterprise in the 1980s with a couple acres.

In towns like Newton, where there has been a Van Manen sweet corn stand for nearly 30 years, customers line up waiting for each day’s pickings.

“It’s really busy when the season first starts, then tapers off some,” says Jacob. “They like to buy from the stand because they know the corn’s fresh.” 

Customers also place “freezer orders” — larger quantities that they freeze at home for their family’s use.

The sweet corn season runs July 4 through Labor Day.

PICTURED ABOVE:  Jacob Van Manen and Emily Larson with their corn. PICTURE BY CONRAD SCHMIDT.

Life on the farm

The Van Manens plant a small patch of plain yellow corn each year, but the Peaches & Cream corn, a sweet mix of yellow and white kernels, is the customer favorite.

Corn picking starts at sunrise with all hands-on deck. A half-dozen hired pickers work alongside family members for a couple hours each day. 

A morning taste test by Jacob starts the whole process. “I pick an ear and taste it,” he says. “If it passes, it’s good to go. If it’s not good raw, it won’t be good cooked.”

Ears are picked and transported to the roadside stand. Corn headed for retail establishments is bagged.

The sweet corn is only a part of the Van Manens' farm. The family also grows field corn and soybeans and raises hogs and cattle.

They plant around 30 acres each year of sweet corn and another 3 to 4 acres of pumpkins. 

Jacob and his wife, Kate, plus Jacob's sister, Emily Larson, and her husband, Braden, make up the heart of the Van Manen sweet corn business. 

Jacob, who says he “just loves growing things,” entertained the idea of an office job after college, but the farm beckoned.

His parents, Kevin and Julie, are on hand to help, and the next young generation — the sixth — is getting a taste of the corn and the business.

“I love that my kids get to grow up on the farm like I did,” says Jacob. “Not many kids today get to do that today.”

The Van Manens help teach other kids about farm life by hosting farm tours. “They get to see a bit of everything here, not just big machinery,” says Jacob.

The latest addition to the farm is a processing facility built last year with the help of a $25,000 cost-share Choose Iowa grant through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The building houses a produce washing station, space for customers to pick up orders and a walk-in cooler.  

“The cooler helps extend the shelf-life of our melons,” says Jacob. 

Their roadside stands also sell pumpkins, squash, ornamental Indian corn, tomatoes, watermelon and cantaloupe. 

“The corn we pretty much try not to keep for more than a day,” Jacob says. Unsold corn is donated to the local food bank or fed to livestock. “We try to manage things so there’s not a lot left.”

A hearty crop

Sweet corn accounts for 1% of the corn grown in Iowa. Some varieties, such as Peaches & Cream, can be planted as early as late April if conditions are right. Soil temperatures need to be at least 55 degrees. It takes 60-90 days to mature.

This year’s corn went in early. The Van Manens had nearly one-half of it planted and starting to sprout by May 1.

“Of course we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” says Jacob. Last year, hail hit the crop early in the season, setting the growing season back by a week or so. A few years ago, a late August derecho took out what was left of the crop.

Growing sweet corn isn't much different than growing conventional corn. The Van Manens have adopted several soil and water conservation practices on their farm to grow sweet corn and livestock sustainably.

Pest control is focused on earworms. “Although the damage is mostly cosmetic and at the tip, people want the corn to look perfect," Jacob says.

And the battle with the raccoons is ongoing. “We tried electric fencing, but with the field size, that’s difficult.

“It can be a challenge, but we love it,” Jacob says. 

The family plans to add more sweet corn stands in the future and expand into the Des Moines metro area. 

After all, they don’t expect the market to go away. Iowans love their sweet corn.

Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Greenfield.