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Rare, successful Alaska corn harvest gives Fairbanks farmers hope

Suzanna Caldwell
UAF photo

Corn in the Lower 48 may be suffering a disastrous season, but in Fairbanks -- a sub-arctic community famous for ice fog and minus-40 F winter temperatures -- stalks are producing noticeable yields, perhaps for the first time.

Meriam Karlsson, a horticulture professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been able to produce some 60 stalks this season. That's the most she's ever grown, despite chilly weather hanging on throughout Interior Alaska earlier this summer.

Alaska isn't known for warm-weather crops, and corn needs a soil temperature of 65-70 degrees to mature properly. Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, falls short of the 60s on many summer days. Consequently, Alaska corn is usually relegated to greenhouses instead of outdoor fields.

But Karlsson has been testing corn growth for years, with varying success. Two years ago, a warm August produced a sizable crop, but last year there was hardly any.

So what’s the trick? Starting corn in a greenhouse, then moving the stalks outside for the remainder of the season seems to work best.

Ahead of schedule

When Karlsson first began working with corn, colleagues told her that transplanting corn would never work because the plant’s sensitive roots couldn't be disturbed. Turns out, that's not the case.

Karlsson started her plants in a greenhouse on May 15, then transplanted 6-to-8 inch plants to the Fairbanks Experiment Farm on June 1.

Once the plants moved outside, Karlsson kept them in raised beds and covered them with plastic mulch to keep the soil temperature consistently warm.

Now they're more than 6 feet tall, and producing corn ahead of schedule. Varieties like Earlivee and Aladdin (both sweet corn; one is yellow, the other is white and yellow) have done best. Earlivee, developed by Canadian farmers, only takes 60 days to develop. Karlsson was able to harvest the crop on day 56.

Heat is crucial. Plants in the Lower 48 are brown and dead, burnt from this summer’s record heatwave. But Alaska deals with the opposite problem. Fairbanks weather averages a high of about 70 degrees during the summer but temperatures have been relatively cool this year. The average high for Fairbanks in July was 68 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Fairbanks International Airport reported 875 degree days (the unit of measure for optimal growing) so far this year, only four below the yearly average.

Still, the corn showed up about a week early. A warm August helped, Karlsson said. When corn is almost ready to bear fruit, that last bit of warmth helps it mature.

Avoiding August's chill

While August’s late burst of sun has been good this year, the month has been a problem in the past. Traditionally, corn has only been planted outside rather than transplanted. Because of cold soil, the earliest farmers can get corn seeds in the ground is around June 1. If plants mature on time, that puts them into late August or early September.

Fairbanks gets cold fast in autumn, and Karlsson said growing that late is risky. Daylight hours drop dramatically (7 minutes a day) and cold temperatures can arrive early.

“There aren't as many hours when the sun is up,” she said.  “It's kind of hard (to grow). Even if we had a warm September, the days are getting so much shorter,” she said.

Karlsson tested six different seed varieties. All the corn grown was sweet corn that could be eaten. She said there's no Alaska market for seed corn, which is usually fed to cattle.

Local corn popular

But there is a market for sweet corn. Monica Mazakis at the HomeGrown Market in Fairbanks said local corn is extremely popular. A couple dozen ears can sell in hours.

Warm crops like tomatoes and corn are popular at farmers markets, Karlsson said, despite the difficulty of growing them in Alaska.

“It's always something that gardeners talk about,” she said. “You're a good gardener if you can grow (tomatoes and corn).”

Arthur Keyes of Glacier Valley Farm in Palmer said this year is the first he hasn't tried to grow corn. All agriculture in Alaska is risky, he noted, but corn is particularly sensitive to inclement weather.

“It has the potential to not pencil out, and we all need to get paid,” Keyes said. “Corn is one of those crops, where you go do all that work and the likelihood of getting a crop is not as good.”

Even though corn is probably best suited for the warmer summer temperatures of Interior Alaska, Karlsson said it might work in chillier communities, too. Temporary greenhouses or “high tunnels,” also known as hoop houses, could help improve or extend growing seasons.

According to Karlsson, corn production in Interior Alaska could be very successful. She predicts that based on weather patterns, farmers might only have a failure every 10 years. And global warming might make Alaska corn production more dependable if the average daily temperature increases.

“If somebody wanted to put the effort into it and really take care of it, you probably could get corn production going,” she said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com