King Corn: How It’s Done at Howden Farm
At this time of year, everybody serves corn on the cob and everybody claims that their local farm stand has the hands-down best corn in the region. The people who go to Howden Farm in Sheffield are among the most vociferous, and so are the folks who buy their corn at Silamar Farm in Millerton (NY), LaBonne’s in Salisbury (CT), and the Co-op in Great Barrington (MA), because what they are buying is Howden Corn, too.
“We pick it in the morning and deliver it for that day’s sale,’ says Bruce Howden, who grew up on this farm by the Housatonic River. He moved away for 30 years and ran a B&B and graphic design business in Vermont before returning home in 1998 to continue and honor his father’s legacy. “We’ve been selling sweet corn here since 1948,” he says.
It’s the freshness, Howden believes, that makes his corn distinctive. “It could be the soil and it could be the agricultural practice,” he says, “But I get up at 5 AM to pick our corn. Some people pick corn in the afternoon, but I think it makes the corn starchier. We’ve built our reputation on seven days a week delivery.”
He says it was not hard to get back into the agricultural life after 30 years away from it. “It’s like riding a bike, but there weren’t bikes with ten speeds back then,” he says in a drawl that makes him sound like a New England version of Truman Capote. “The farming business has become very scientific. You test the soil and find out what nutrients it needs. You just don’t buy 10-10-10 and hope for the best.” While farming is not an easy life, it’s not as grueling as it was in his father’s day. “We have a brand new mechanical corn picker—we’ve nicknamed it Conrasaurus Pix—and it works perfectly,” he says cheerfully.
Though he has 35 acres of sweet corn under cultivation, it is the 40 acres of pumpkins that really get him animated. “My father developed something called the Howden Pumpkin,” he says. “It became the gold standard in the industry. You’ll see it in all the seed catalogs.” His father also developed something called the Howden Biggie. “Its average size is 43 pounds,” he says proudly.
Howden sells pumpkins to places like Ward’s Nursery, and he has a pick-your-own patch at his spread in Sheffield along with a hay maze for small children and hay rides through the fields on autumn weekends. But he laments that pumpkin growing is not what it was. “It’s like the Christmas tree business,” he says. “A lot of people have gotten into it in small ways if they have a little bit of extra land.”
Instead of thinking about slowing down, Howden is thinking about expanding, even though he has sold the development rights to almost all of his land—more than 200 acres—to the State of Massachusetts, which will keep them in agriculture in perpetuity. “We closed on that on July 25, which was quite a big deal,” he says. “I have five acres of small fruit right now and I would like to grow more.”
Right now, he is focusing on harvesting corn and spraying the pumpkin patch so the vines and stems are sturdy. “A good pumpkin to my mind has to have a good stem,” he says. Does he have any special tricks for cooking corn? “No, I just boil or grill it,” he says, but he does have a tip about not cooking it. “You can munch on corn raw, which is what we often do in the fields,” he says. “And if you’re making a corn salad, you really don’t have to cook it at all.”
303 Rannapo Rd, Sheffield, MA; 413.229.8481