COVID project results in corn bounty

A mother and son duo worried at first that they had planted too much, but customers have not been in short supply

MONTMARTRE, Sask. — Staring out at the acre of land they were about to hand-seed with corn, Janet Kotylak and her son Riley both had the same thought.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have done so much,” said Janet, explaining that, on paper, an acre of corn didn’t seem so daunting to plant by hand.

“I was just thinking, ‘an acre is a lot of land and what if it goes to waste?’ ” said Riley Kotylak, the 24-year-old engineering graduate who had given his mom the idea of planting a commercial patch of corn when COVID-19 found him isolating at home on the family farm this spring.

What started out as a small make-work project for the brand new University of Saskatchewan civil engineering grad turned into a more-involved operation very quickly. With 25,000 bi-colour corn seeds in hand, Riley and his mom went ahead with the planting, spending more than 11 hours getting 70 rows into a plot of land located near the farm house.

Riley provided the planning expertise, seed mapping, water requirements and harvest dates, while Janet offered her life-long gardening knowledge and her marketing skills. The first challenge encountered by the industrious mother-son team was getting bi-colour sweet corn seed in the large quantity they needed, and in the right amount of time. After some scrambling, a rush order of bi-colour seed from an Ontario company arrived at the Kotylak farm, just in time for their May 22 planting date.

The next challenge was getting the seed in the ground in an efficient and perfectly spaced manner. Janet’s trusty hand-held garden seeder, passed down from her mother, was up for the job.

“I did some research on row spacing versus seed spacing and I was able to set the seeder to get the right distribution by plugging some holes and some trial and error,” said Riley.

The Kotylaks’ corn project faced challenges this summer, but in the end they managed to grow a healthy crop. | Christalee Froese photo

The next challenge was getting water to the sprawling corn patch.

Riley’s research showed that sweet corn needs 20 to 30 inches of rain in a growing season while southeastern Saskatchewan typically gets seven or eight inches per summer. Having done chores on the mixed farm his whole life, Riley knew the farm’s well could make up for the rainfall that nature would not provide.

“I knew we get 10 gallons per minute from the hydrant and I also knew that in order to get an inch of rain on an acre it would require about 26,000 gallons, so I was pretty confident that our well could make up for the shortfall,” said Riley.

The fledgling engineer, who was applying for jobs but was not confident he’d get one during the COVID lockdown, began devising a watering system using pipes, hoses and regular garden sprinklers mounted on posts. With each of the three sections of the one-acre corn crop requiring 12 hours to water, the homemade irrigation system was running frequently throughout the summer.

By August, the corn crop was growing well and it was time for marketing. Some Facebook posts and online ads resulted in a promising demand for the first ever Kotylak Corn crop. All the plans were in place for a booming summer business, but what the family hadn’t planned for was Riley securing an engineering job an hour away in Regina.

The Kotylaks have had to depend on family and friends to take on jobs like picking corn for markets, and manning the cornfield for U-pick customers. Riley returns home on weekends to help where he can, which includes loading up his truck with corn and traveling to area farmers markets and parking lots.

Nine-year-old Journey Froese reaps the rewards of the on-farm COVID-19 project that turned into Kotylak Corn. | Christalee Froese photo

Janet, who also serves as board chair for the Prairie Valley School Division, said the demand for Kotylak Corn has been overwhelming. At weekend sales in Weyburn and Regina, Kotylak Corn sold out of its supply within an hour or two, while at Montmartre’s weekly market, 86 dozen cobs were sold in about two hours.

“I’m a people person, so even as busy and crazy as it was at the Montmartre market, I loved it because it was exciting to see our work coming to fruition,” said Janet.

As for next year’s plans, Riley and Janet are already thinking about changes they can make to increase the efficiency of the operation.

“Mom and I each have strong opinions about stuff, but it works out,” said Riley, shooting his mom a mischievous glance.

When asked who usually wins the arguments, Riley quickly replied, “it depends who’s right.”

“Usually one of us is right,” added Janet with a laugh. “We’re still working together, which is a good sign.”

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