Sweetcorn focus shifts to easy picking

Varieties better suited for mechanical picking were an emerging trend at the NIAB trials. Kris Collins reports.

Sweetcorn trials produced good, if watery yields - photo: HW
Sweetcorn trials produced good, if watery yields - photo: HW

Growing conditions for sweetcorn may have been less than perfect this season, but the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) variety trials at its grounds in Cambridge have shown a good yield in the face of a distinct lack of sunshine this summer.

This year, 27 varieties were entered by seven seed companies, making the 2008 sweetcorn trials the largest yet - and highlighting a high level of developmental breeding work for what is still considered a minor crop for the UK.

The varieties were sown on 15 May and took eight to 10 days longer to mature than in 2007.

Trials organiser, NIAB's Mike Day, says the yield has been good, with above- average rainfall driving average cob weight up from 211g to 235g - bringing it closer to commercial crop averages.

However, sugar levels were down and water content up to 90 per cent in some cases due to the high rainfall - 27cm of water fell on the crop during trials.

The trials ground also had to face strong winds throughout the summer months - but, despite this, Day comments that the crop has stood up well.

Day has seen some interesting trends emerge this year. He explains: "We have seen more tender varieties entered than in previous years, such as Wagtail and Lapwing from Tozer Seeds, alongside a couple of bi-colour varieties from Claus Tezier - introduced to meet demand for niche products.

"Perhaps the most interesting trend for commercial growers to realise is the breeding emphasis being put on varieties that are more suited to mechanical picking rather than by hand, such as Protege from Syngenta Seeds. As harvesting moves increasingly down that route, these types will be something to look out for."

Abbott & Cobb trials manager Tony Perryman sees the development of mechanically harvested cobs as the way forward for the industry.

He says: "We need single tiller (single cob-producing stem) varieties like ACcession on the market. They are what growers are looking for as they move to more mechanised harvesting.

"Over 60 per cent of UK cobs are harvested by machine - and that's likely to go up with the current labour situation as it is. Single tillers are what we need to aim for if we are to keep our growers producing sweetcorn."

Early to mature, early to market

With a short, 12-week window (August to October) for UK sweetcorn supply, crop length is an important factor for growers. Earlybird, a super-sweet variety from Tozer, was the first to mature, on 29 August, followed by Signet, from Seminis, on the same day.

Signet made its debut in commercial growing programmes this year and Day felt it showed good performance and strong vigour for an early type.

Highlighting results with extra tender types, he says: "Lark is proving to be a good performer but its cobs tend to be on the smaller side, so it's not the best for commercial growers. However, it performs well in the kind of weather we have experienced this year, making it ideal for the amateur market - not just home growers but farm shops and small holdings."

Wagtail is a new tender variety from Tozer and it matured just three days behind Lark. It has a good average weight of 278g and a nice-sized grain length of 18.1cm. The second new tender introduction from Tozer, Lapwing, offers a similar fill ratio but with a longer, heavier crop.

Tozer UK sales manager David Rogers was present at the trials and expressed high hopes for both introductions.

He says: "We're looking to build our tender range, having dropped both Kite and Swallow from our lists. Both the new varieties are reasonable in size so we will seek to continue with these.

"Lapwing is perhaps the most promising of the two and the one most likely to be pushed forward. It is similar in maturity to Seville, which is probably the most widely grown variety in Europe, so it's best to use that as a benchmark to compare the new types against. Both are showing the ability to perform well in less-than-perfect conditions."

Interestingly, an experimental bi-coloured variety - MA 2370 from Claus Tezier - proved to be one of the earliest crops, harvested on 2 September. The variety, along with Tezier's other bicoloured experimental MA 4830, proved to have the best 100 per cent fill ratios, showing a strong potential for bi-colour types that currently remain niche products in the market.

State of the industry

As well as assessing the varieties on show, the trials were a chance for growers and breeders to informally discuss the state of the market and the future of sweetcorn production in the UK.

Among the group there was a general feeling that total UK production was down this year - with Perryman suggesting that around 160 to 200ha had been removed from production, compared with 2007.

He also reported that, despite this, total sweetcorn sales were rising in the retail sector, but that more emphasis on UK produce was needed for UK growers to maximise the crop's potential.

"While total sales are up, we need to make sure that the increase is focused on the 12-week UK supply window," he says.

To better present UK produce to the consumer it was felt that retailers and shop staff needed to implement better handling and care of the product - both in stores and warehouses.

With sweetcorn losing up to 40 per cent of its sugar content after six hours of room-temperature storage, concern was shown over a lack of refrigeration for the fresh product when it is displayed in stores.

Looking to the future

Visitors to the trials felt that many of the varieties grown for use in processed produce do not handle well as fresh cobs, and it was agreed that there was scope to develop varieties that perform well for both purposes to boost sales of fresh produce, without having to grow different varieties.

Day also noted that there was a strong breeding focus moving towards varieties that could be good for both hand picking and for mechanical harvesting methods, and suggested that Protege, a late mid-season variety, was a good option for meeting these requirements.


Earliest to mature: Earlybird (Tozer) and Signet (Seminis), both on 29 August

Last to mature: Segovia (Tozer) and ACcession (Abbott & Cobb), both on 10 September

Number of grain rows per cob: Lapwing Tozer - 18-22; Seville (Tozer), ACcession (Abbott & Cobb) and GSS 1477 (Syngenta Seeds) - all 16-22

Highest yield (cobs per plant)

- First Mirai 003 (Pro-Veg Seeds) - 1.40

- Second ACX4104Y (Abbott & Cobb) - 1.25

- Third Lark (Tozer); ACX4049 (Abbott & Cobb) and Mirai 148Y (Pro-Veg Seeds) - all 1.15

Mean yield across trial 0.98

Percentage of crop filling cobs to 100 per cent

- First Exp MA 4830 (bicoloured), (Clause Tezier) - 100 per cent

- Second Exp MA 2370 (bicoloured), (Clause Tezier) - 95 per cent

- Third Lark (Tozer) - 91 per cent

Mean percentage across trial 46.33

Average cob weight

First Lapwing - 281g

Second ACcession - 270g

Third Signet - 268g

Mean weight across trial 235g.

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