Buddy McKinstry looks concerned:He’s walking the border of a sweet corn field just off U.S. 27 south of South Bay, Fla., and doesn’t like what he sees.
“This field is stunted,” he says. “The 15 inches of rain we had in October set it way back — it should be a lot taller than this when it’s tasseling.”
McKinstry, a Pahokee native, has worked in agriculture here all his life and knows he’ll get another shot at producing the kind of sweet corn crop he usually does. Last year’s crop brought in less money than anticipated, so he hopes this year’s sweet corn performs well.
“Last year we had a record-breaking freeze December 7 that wiped out all my sweet corn and green beans,” he says. “We lost the fall crop and had to start over. Then with the spring crop, there was an oversupply of sweet corn and not much demand. About 25 percent to 30 percent of the sweet corn in the Glades was left in the field unpicked.
“Some think it was the economy. Some blame the cold weather that hung around the Midwest and Northeast longer than normal and bogged up our Memorial Day business. When it finally broke loose, it was late. That makes it hard to survive in this business.”
All that makes this year’s sweet corn crop particularly important in the Glades area. McKinstry, renowned for his sweet corn growing expertise, always gives his crop special care, however.
“The key is spending a lot of time with the crop,” he says. “Everything needs to be done on a timely basis. I do everything on a timeline — if you stick to that, you’ll make a crop. Make sure what you do is done right and it will help lessen the severity of a weather event.”
Early in his career, McKinstry worked for John Hundley, the 2010 Florida winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Hundley, well-known in the area as a top sweet corn grower, taught McKinstry some tricks of the trade.
“What he taught me was to take care of the little things. If you do that, the big things take care of themselves,” McKinstry say.
One of the biggest things, of course, is managing risk, and in south Florida’s sweet corn business, weather presents the biggest hazard. With McKinstry’s system, risk decreases somewhat because sweet corn planting is spaced out through the season.
“I plant what I can harvest daily,” he says. “I run three corn crews and I know what each crew can harvest each day. I plant according to that and also figure in what the sales office can sell in a normal year. I do the same with green beans.”
Corn earworm ranks tops among his pest problems. “The field we’re in now had 100 percent earworm infestation when it was knee-high,” he says. “We also have a few diseases like rust and blight that we fight all along. I have a crop consultant who scouts all my corn and beans. We spray according to the Integrated Pest Management system. The consultant writes the spray sheet and e-mails it to me. He also turns it in to the aerial applicator and they make the application. When there’s a problem, we can respond pretty fast.”
In addition to sweet corn and green beans, McKinstry also grows cabbage, sugarcane, escarole and endive. “I try to be diversified,” he says. “I hope to make money on something at some time or other.”
When McKinstry went into business for himselfafter managing Hundley’s operation, he first partnered with two friends. That effort was disappointing. “We lost a bunch of money,” he says.
“Then a couple of people called and wanted me to joint venture corn on their land. I’m doing that now with Roth Farms, King Ranch and Star Farms. If you don’t have the financial resources or the land base, you can’t just jump out there and start farming. Being able to joint venture with people helped me get going.
“But they all came to me first — I never solicited a joint venture deal. The way it works is, I grow it, they put the land up, and then we split the proceeds or the loss. On the landowner’s side, he would have to hire somebody full-time to grow corn if he wanted to get in the sweet corn business. He’d have somebody on the payroll full-time for a 90-day crop. So it works out well both ways.”
McKinstry traces his Glades ancestry back more than a century, which makes him a rarity these days.
A great-grandfather, Washington B. Cross, moved to Pahokee around 1900 to be a commercial fisherman on Lake Okeechobee.
His grandfather, Cricket Cross, was an early corn farmer here and also built canals and helped drain farmland in the area.
Another grandfather, Sam McKinstry, Sr., came to the Glades from Ireland and his son, Buddy’s father, Sam McKinstry, Jr., farmed, as well.
The family managed to survive the 1928 hurricane that devastated the Glades and killed as many as 3,000 people.
“I have deep roots here,” Mc-Kinstry says. “We’re blessed with good soil and a good climate, but there’s still a lot of risk to farming in this area. We just have to do our best to figure out how to manage it.”