According to USDA reports, commercial sweet corn production for the fresh market in 2009 surpassed a record $835.8 million in value and over 28.4 million cwt in volume. That same year, commercial sweet corn for processing (frozen and canned) was valued at a record $335.6 million and totaled a record 3.2 million tons. Both the volume of sweet corn for freezing and for canning increased. (NASS 2010)
New genetic lines of sweet corn have improved consistency, taste and shelf life. Because of these genetic improvements, sweet corn consumption continued to increase, peaking at 29 pounds per person in 1996. By 2009, however, per person consumption of sweet corn averaged 25.5 pounds per year. Of that amount, Americans ate 9.0 pounds of fresh sweet corn per person. Fresh sweet corn consumption now exceeds the level of frozen corn consumption (8.8 pounds per person) and of canned corn consumption (7.6 pounds per person). (ERS 2010)
Sweet corn, a genetic mutation of field corn, was reportedly first grown in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. The first commercial variety was introduced there in 1779. The natural mutation causes the kernel to store more sugars than field corn. To capture the sweetness, sweet corn is harvested before it matures, while the sugar content is still high.
As alluded to previously, sweet corn is produced for three distinct markets: fresh, frozen and canned. Like other dual-use (fresh and processed) vegetables, the fresh market accounts for the majority of total sweet corn crop value. However, sweet corn is the second-leading processing crop, following tomatoes. The value of sweet corn for freezing continued to rise, reaching $191.6 million, while the value of sweet corn for canning decreased from 2008, falling to $144.0 million.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009), sweet corn is harvested on over 28,000 farms and in all 50 states. Coastal states dominate the commercial fresh sweet corn market. During 2009, Florida remained the leading producer of fresh sweet corn. From Winter 2007 through Winter 2009, Florida’s average national market share for sweet corn was 67 percent (ERS 2010). California, Georgia and Washington were also leading producers of fresh sweet corn. Compared to the previous year, production of fresh sweet corn rose in California and Washington while production declined in Florida and Georgia.
The production of sweet corn for processing is heavily concentrated in the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. Since 2004, the value of Minnesota’s sweet corn crop for canning and freezing ($97.6 million) has surpassed the value of Washington’s ($92.4 million) and Wisconsin’s ($62.3 million) sweet corn crop (NASS 2010). In 2009 sweet corn output was record high in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both states experienced record sweet corn yields per acre (8.0 and 7.8 tons, respectively), but Washington’s average yield (10.4 tons) was still higher than either state’s average yield.
In terms of production, the United States has dominated the world sweet corn, or green maize, market since at least the 1960s. In 2004, Mexico became the second largest producer of sweet corn, a position it still holds today. Other countries who are leading producers of sweet corn include (in order): Nigeria, France and Hungary. (ERS 2008)
The supersweet varieties introduced and refined over the past 25 years have improved the quality of both fresh and processed products. These three major varieties are normal sugar, sugar-enhanced and supersweet. The sweeter flavored sugar-enhanced varieties have been responsible for most of the growth in sweet corn consumption. Supersweet varieties offer a longer shelf life, extending the marketing window and allowing retailers to deliver a quality product to customers nearly year round.
To maximize freshness, contracts are generally offered through a variety of brokers and processed at local facilities. To maximize capacity, most processing plants will process a portion of their annual production under their own branded label products and also package and process for other wholesale marketers under private label agreements. Rapid consolidation and mergers make ownership of these plants a very fluid industry, but Seneca Foods is now one of the major frozen vegetable (corn) processing companies with ten facilities in the Minnesota and Wisconsin area.
Fresh sweet corn production is typically sold in daily spot markets and is highly subject to supply and demand variability, while canned and frozen corn is normally grown under a contracted price.