(May 19) Corn is one of the defining crops of the Western Hemisphere. Originally the basis of American diets, corn sustained Westerners from the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures in South and Central America, to the many American and Canadian Indian tribes. The vegetable was first seen by Europeans when Christopher Columbus and crew saw vast cornfieldson Hispaniola. In the Middle East, street vendors sell ears of corn straight from vats of boiling water – pretty healthy fast food.

In the United States today, corn is traditionally thought of as a summertime treat and evokes images of backyard cookouts. However, sweet corn is a year-round crop. While many states’ crops are available from May through October, Florida’s crop runs from October to June..

Today’s technology allows corn to retain sweetness. It used to be that once corn was picked, its sugar began to convert to starch almost immediately, meaning the corn began losing sweetness within a few hours. Today, field heat is removed by precooling just moments before the corn is picked. This slows the sugar conversion and extends the corn’s sweetness and freshness. To maintain this effect, sweet corn should be refrigerated continuously once picked.

The Fresh Supersweet Corn Council, New York, has developed a media kit including “Ten Easy Steps to Turning Corn into a Year-round Profit Maker,” based on research conducted a the University of Florida-Gainesville.Keeping corn cold is one of the keys to bringing back repeat customers.

The council also recommends giving customers a choice of white, yellow, bicolor, bulk, prepackaged, husked and partially husked ears of corn. Research has shown that different types of customers have strong preferences in these areas, and keeping them all on hand will increase overall sales because consumers feel that they have options. Learn about your specific customers’ desires and cater to them.

The council also emphasizes the importance of in-store merchandising during the winter months, when customers are not as naturally inclined to think of sweet corn. Cross-merchandise butter and dried seasonings, or corn utensils like tongs and corn holders, the brochure suggests. Offer different ways of cooking corn and creative recipes, available through the council.

At Ahart’s Market in Allentown, Pa., one of five stores, the store announces its corn specials over the public address system, cross-merchandises with butter, salt, pepper, lemons and limes and offers sweet corn samples, says Sam Lipot, produce supervisor.

“We give a demo where we rub a little lime across (the corn) and it’s so refreshing,” he says.

Ahart’s creates large, bulk displays on 8-foot square tables piled with corn and large chalkboard or cardboard signs when it’s local sweet corn season, Lipot says. If corn is on special, it sells for 12 ears for $1.99. At that price, Lipot moves about 3,000 ears per week. During the two or three month local season, sales increase 30 percent to 35 percent overall. When corn is not in season, it sells better tray-wrapped, Lipot says, at $1.39 for five ears. Ahart’s sells about 400 ears a week in the off-season.

At Benny’s Supermarket, a single store in Opelousas, La., customers look forward to the local corn season, says owner Benny Nele. He says that his customers not only know when Louisiana sweet corn season will start, but they know when to expect specific farmers’ crops. At $1.99 per dozen, Benny’s sells about 80-100 dozen ears a day during the local corn season, Nele says.

“Most of (the customers) take it and shave it off the cob and package it up and put it in the freezer,” he says. “Some people will buy four or five dozen at a time.”

At Gerrity’s Supermarket in Scranton, Pa, with nine stores, local corn is advertised with posters and a little history on the grower who produced the corn, says produce supervisor Rico Galassi.

“The last couple of years I’ve gone out and taken photos with the guy standing next to his corn in the field,” Galassi says. “(Consumers) like knowing it’s being grown locally and supporting that local farmer. Part of our image is hometown, homegrown, homemade. Whenever we can, we try to utilize the local growers.”