TABER, Alta. — Sunrise is still a few hours away when the people who provide the famous Taber corn start picking ears for that day’s sales.
Among them are members of the Jensen family, who market Jensen’s Taber Corn throughout Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Ditto members of the Johnson family, who have a similar-sized operation within the Municipal District of Taber.
Conditions are cool on this morning among the tall green stalks. The region’s hot days and cool nights are among the factors contributing to the corn’s sweetness and tenderness.
Out in a cornfield northeast of Taber, Jeremy Jensen runs a four-row corn picker that handles corncobs gently despite the rough and loud noise it makes.
He is too young to remember the days when other members of his family hand-picked up to 30 acres of corn to supply customers hungry for the season’s first cobs.
But David Jensen, who started the business along with his brother about 35 years ago, has vivid memories of hand picking.
“We hand picked for about 12 years. We were up to about 30 acres of hand-picked corn before we got a machine and then we just kept getting new machines.
“This newest machine, that’s why we bought it. Some of this corn you can’t pick with the older machines because it damages so much. This is just like hand picking or even softer than hand picking. But expensive.”
A few kilometres away, Marty Johnson and his son, James, have also started their fresh corn season with the first ears from their operation of about 200 acres destined for the fresh corn market.
“The corn is really good, especially for the early stuff,” said James Johnson on Aug. 5.
Though they and their crew did some hand picking early in the season, they’ve begun using a harvester as demand picks up.
The Johnsons market corn under their own name and also under the Valgardson and Tanner brands. Their own vendors and third party vendors manage the sales and they also do some wholesale business to grocery stores, said Johnson.
They plant five varieties of sweet corn, and different maturity dates help provide corn from late July to at least mid-September.
“We were voted last year as having the best tasting corn by the (Taber) Chamber of Commerce,” said Johnson.
The chamber has a corn-tasting contest each year at Taber Cornfest, which runs this year Aug. 25-27.
Back at Jensen’s, David keeps a steady pace on corn-picking mornings, organizing trucks and monitoring the sorting and bagging crew.
This fresh-corn season began in the last days of July and will run until mid-September.
“(Demand is) always stronger at the beginning. It peters off after the long weekend in September. It gets slower, people are back to school…. August is the big month for corn,” said David.
In the field, corn is moved from the harvester to an open trailer and trucked to the sorting and bagging area, where about 35 employees put it in bags holding four dozen cobs each.
Some of those go into the fleet of pickup trucks that fan out across the province.
Jensen declined to say how many acres of corn are planted each year. The company website lists it as more than 250.
Fields are located in various parts of the M.D. of Taber as a hedge against the risk of hail or other crop issues. Jensen said that as of Aug. 3, none of the family’s fields had been hit by hail, although numerous hailstorms have passed through the region.
On the Johnsons’ acreage, James said hail touched one field but didn’t damage the cobs.
The Jensens plant about 10 different varieties of corn.
“They’re all super sweet. The breeders have done a good job of moving the corn, for how long it lasts once it’s cut. … I remember 25 years ago you couldn’t get the life out of it that you do now.”
Jensen speaks with obvious affection about gourmet varieties, and one in particular.
“There’s one variety, you can eat it if you don’t have any teeth. That’s how tender it is. But there’s three or four varieties that are just absolutely excellent.”
By hiring the people who sell the corn at various retail stands, Jensen said the family maintains quality control. Each seller has a certificate indicating the source of the corn.
In years past, pretenders to the Taber corn reputation have tried to pass off their product as the real thing, said Jensen.
Certificates and a registered trademark were implemented to combat that problem.
“There’s always counterfeit corn at the beginning. They get it out of Washington or B.C. I haven’t heard too much this year, but other years, yes. But I think people get wise to ask about certificates, because that’s proof of authenticity.”
Johnson agrees that pretenders to the corn throne established by Taber growers are seldom a threat anymore.