Lehigh man’s sweet corn business pays off beyond the sales

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Selling sweet corn grown on his property along the outskirts of Lehigh, Ted McIrvin reaps the bountiful rewards of his summer labor. He enjoys visiting with a steady stream of customers, makes a little extra money and stays physically active.

McIrvin has been diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy that confines him to a wheelchair. To keep the enemy at bay, he was encouraged by his physician and family members in 1999 to work at something that keeps him active.

“The primary purpose of starting this was the physical therapy part of it,”said McIrvin, 79, from his Jazzy power chair.

“I get a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment when people stop by and get corn. Some will sit and visit for quite a while. But nobody likes to work for nothing, so it’s designed to make a profit, too.”

McIrvin and wife Darlene live on 11 acres since moving from the panhandle of Nebraska in 1998 to be near two of their sons living in McPherson at the time. Today, two acres of their property are committed to sweet corn.

Beginning the last week in June, McIrvin offers fresh corn sacked a dozen ears per bag selling for $2 on the honor system. Picked daily, the corn is placed in an refrigerator near the house, and a sign asks patrons to place their money in a coffee can.

“We have tried to pick corn for its flavor,” McIrvin said about planting his bi-color sweet corn.

“It’s sweet corn the way it ought to taste. We get it from Harris Seed Co. in New York. It’s a patented variety, and people just seem to like the flavor.”

Darlene was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 10 years ago. The couple raised four sons and have 12 grandchildren. One grandchild, Robert McIrvin, 12, has spent the past two summers living with his grandparents and helping with the corn crop.

“I plant corn, treat it, pick it and weed it,” Robert said. “I start when school’s over the end of May and then pretty much work until school starts.”

Robert receives part of the crop income for helping and uses it for spending money.

“He also has to invest part of it,” McIrvin said. “That’s part of the deal. He’s a good helper.”

Using a staggered-planting system, McIrvin’s first batch of corn was planted this year on April 8-the last planting will be in early August.

“We will plant sweet corn about 11 times this summer,” McIrvin said. “This way, we try to have a continuous supply of sweet corn ready to eat throughout the summer so it’s not a one-time deal and over with. It spreads the work and the exercise out over the summer.”

McIrvin hasn’t been able to walk for the past two years and counts on family and neighbors to help him get on and off his Massey tractor that is used to prepare the ground each year.

The garden tractor is used for cultivation and spraying, but McIrvin said he keeps the use of pesticides to a minimum.

“We’re not pure organic, but we are opposed to a lot of chemical use,” he said. “That’s why we use vegetable oil as the primary control for corn earworms. It doesn’t get rid of them, it just helps control them.”

Robert helps McIrvin inoculate the tips of the ears of corn with commercial vegetable oil. He also helps keep the weeds down.

“I try to do most of the corn picking and sacking from the Jazzy,” McIrvin said.

The sweet corn variety of white and yellow kernels peppering each ear is called Sweet Rhythm.

“It’s a patented variety that’s a combination of the old-fashioned sweet corn, the sweet corn when they added more sweetness to it, and then they added more keeping power to it,” McIrvin said.

“This corn will keep for seven to 10 days after picking and still retain its original flavor.”

Fighting the typical Kansas July-August drought days in the past, McIrvin asked the city to install a water meter to irrigate his crop when needed.

Motorists driving along U.S. Highway 56 at Diamond have probably seen the signs McIrvin has put out to pique the curiosity of travelers and encourage people to stop and buy his sweet corn.

At the suggestion of his sons, the sign changed about every two weeks beginning in April.

“The boys suggested we do a Burma Shave type sign,” McIrvin said. “Only instead of stretching them out along the road, we change them periodically.”

The first sign stated “Planted 4-8.” Monitoring the progress of the crop and adding a touch of humor, the signs that followed stated “Corn’s Up,” “Pesky Rabbits,” “Looks Good,” “Tassels, Ready Soon.”

“We started that this year, and we hear quite a few people look forward to what’s there,” McIrvin said. By the end of June, a large sign states “Sweet Corn” and offers directions to the McIrvin house just 11/2 miles north of the highway.

“We like to keep a supply of five to 10 dozen in the refrigerator,” McIrvin said the second week in July. “However, up until now, when we have a run of customers, we don’t even get it to the refrigerator. It just goes out as fast as we can pick it.”

Although the corn is usually available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the early afternoons are often a good time of the day to find corn in the refrigerator.

“We like people to call if they’re going to want 10 dozen or more so we will be sure to have that much picked,” McIrvin said.

The tiny earworms enjoying a feast on his corn usually take their toll on the tips of the ears, but any unwanted tiny visitors, or any damage they cause, can be cut off and discarded before cooking.

Darlene said she uses the kettle method to prepare corn, and McIrvin said the microwave or grilling work well, too.

“There’s as many ways to fix sweet corn as you have imagination to fix it,” McIrvin said. “We even like to eat it raw.”

The majority of customers come from Marion County, but summer visitors from out of state make their way down the gravel roads and follow the signs to the McIrvin home, too.

The first summer did not show a profit. The second summer, McIrvin had additional health problems and wasn’t able to tend to his crops. “The weeds pretty much took over, but we did break even,” he said.

“The past two years, it has been profitable. Starting in 2000, we sold 700 dozen. In 2003, it was 930 dozen. This year, we’ve set a target of 1,200 dozen and anticipate it being profitable.”

Although he sells on the honor system, McIrvin will often ride out in his wheel chair to check on his visitors.

“We’ve met a great many interesting people in the last two to three years,” he said. “I guess this just gives us a little more purpose to keep going.”

Looking ahead, McIrvin said he hopes to cultivate more acres next year and is experimenting with an ornamental corn crop now.

Keeping active with the help of family and neighbors, McIrvin maneuvers his Jazzy around his two fields and dotes on his grandson throughout the summer. The crop of corn is a field of therapy, and the rewards are plentiful.

“My philosophy in life is we know we will never win the war, both with Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy,” McIrvin said. “The desire is a rear guard to keep active as long as possible.”

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