Darren Wright is a stickler for quality.
Walking amid wispy tassels and jaunty green leaves in one of his cornfields, he is a man on a mission.
His eyes, shaded by his trademarked gray-tinted spectacles and floppy hat, dart left and right looking for brown, not “redhead,” silk tassels, a tell-tale sign of possibly ripe sweet corn.
“This one’s coming along,” he says, grasping a medium-sized ear. “See that dirty brown there?”
Quickly, he’s on to another.
Squeezing the top, he closes his eyes, as if summoning a higher power. Skeptically, he breaks an ear off the stalky plant and peels back the husk to reveal rows of beautiful but immature kernels.
“Look at that,” he says with mild disappointment. “Not ready.”
Wright isn’t just waiting for the 5 acres of sweet corn at his Gypsy Rows Co. farm in Silvana to be ready.
He’s waiting for perfection.
Wright once dumped an entire wheelbarrow of what seemed like perfectly good sweet corn because it wasn’t just right, said his apprentice and “sister” Hayley Swinney, “unanimously unofficially adopted” by the Wright family when she was 15 under the “‘family is where you find it’ clause.”
“I pick it too ripe,” said Swinney, whose corn-harvesting audition was over quickly. “He’s very particular.”
These days Wright does all the picking when it comes to sweet corn, which is one of many crops Gypsy Rows sells at four Snohomish County farmers markets.
Wright doesn’t rate the corn by sight and feel alone, of course.
“We do it by taste, what is the best,” said Swinney, who has worked at Gypsy Rows for six seasons now. “That’s how we choose our lettuce too.”
Gypsy Rows corn won’t be ready in large supply until early to mid-September. That’s late compared to last year. But Wright isn’t grousing about a lack of sunshine.
“Don’t blame it on the weather,” he said. “That’s a cop out. There’s always something more I could have done.”
Though corn’s natural disposition is to turn sugars to starch, sweet corn is all about catching the ears before they lose their sweetness.
“Growing is a science,” Wright said. “Harvest is an art.”
That’s especially true when it comes to triplesweets, a collection of newly introduced varieties with a particularly sweet kick, including Honey Treat and Honey Select, both yellow, and Avalon, a white. Wright also grows Whiteout, a white “sugary enhanced” or SE type of corn.
“The SEs and triplesweets, if you can hit the mark, and it’s a tough mark to hit, will curl your toes,” Wright said. “By picking it all myself I’m assured that nothing overripe slips through. I have the unique opportunity to aim for pure eating quality.”
Though sweet corn is one of the least profitable crops for Wright — yielding about 10 cents a linear foot as opposed to $1 for garden vegetables — it’s one of Snohomish County residents’ favorites.
“You don’t make much on it,” Wright said.
“But you get fans,” Swinney said. “People want corn.”
Usually they sell out.
“Our sweet corn seems to have gained a rabid following,” Wright said. “Customers have been incessantly hounding me for it since June.”
Wright, you might say, became a farmer when he was about 12 years old, growing up in rural Snohomish.
He didn’t grow up on family farm, however. His father worked as a letter carrier.
“I’d pedal my bike to a little roadside stand called Hagen Vegetables and pick beans all summer and after school. My hands just knew how to do it,” Wright said, recalling the first transplanting work he did.
At Hagen’s, Wright, now 42, met another kid, Bryan Custer.
“We developed a healthy little rivalry,” Wright said, remembering their informal corn-picking competitions. “I couldn’t beat him on speed. I had to beat him on quality.”
As the boys became men, Custer took over the farm stand and ran the business side while Wright did the planting and headed up the harvest.
“The result was a thriving, hundred-acre, high-quality produce joint the likes of which I don’t ever expect to see again,” said Wright, who branched out on his own in 1998 with a farm stand in Silvana, where he and his then-partner Debra Lohr-Goetz farmed on about 17 acres.
Business wasn’t brisk enough in “downtown Silvana,” however. After a few seasons, Wright and Lohr-Goetz, who are still friends today, split.
Shortly after that, Wright decided to rent 20 acres and a homestead from another Silvana farmer. When spring came, he planted crops.
But without a farm stand, he wasn’t sure where he would sell the produce.
Then he met Marie Brayman, a founder of the Everett Farmers Market, and he’s been a vendor at local markets ever since, now including Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Snohomish. Swinney and Wright run the market booths with Wright’s parents, Denny and Yvonne Wright of Snohomish, and Wright’s sister, Kerry Knypstra.
Wright, who has always sold his crops directly to consumers, prides himself on an artful market display including perfectly arranged corn.
His booth is known for its array of alternating green and red lettuce heads as well as herbs, carrots, squash, beets, beans, kohlrabi and many other crops from the 5-acre garden at Gypsy Rows.
Wright, who does not use pesticides, uses conventional fertilizers. He sprays a weed-deterring herbicide only on his corn rows, sparingly, usually when plants are about 4 inches tall. Weed control, after that, is done by a cultivator or by hand.
Wright, who deeply respects the certified organic approach to farming, wonders what consumers really want.
“What if the organic movement never was about pesticides? What if that was just something quantifiable like the (spotted) owl, a scientifically verifiable toehold?” Wright said, adding that small farms and organics usually together. “What people want or miss, I believe, is to feel connected to their food again.
“I’ve had more than one old boy tell me the best corn they ever tasted was stolen on a sweet summer day growing up. Take two identical sandwiches, one from a convenience store and one from ol’ Bob at Bob’s Diner.
“Which one will taste better?”
Wright’s farm is named, in part, after Gypsy Rose Lee, a Seattle-born stripper and entertainer who rose to fame in the 1930s by turning burlesque – what Wright calls a “humble occupation” – into an art.
He strives to do the same with produce.
Wright also sees himself as a bit of a gypsy. He’s never been married, has never had a bank loan and doesn’t own a TV.
“I was living like a gypsy for the longest time,” he said, recalling many years in a parked RV trailer. “I like to travel light.”
Today Wright relies on modern as well as vintage farm equipment, including two rusty-red International Harvester tractors, a Farmall 544 Hydro from 1970 and a 1948 Farmall Cub named Rosie.
“She’s a working girl,” Wright said. “I love this old stuff. The more difficult a rig is to drive, the more fun I have.”
Wright’s most prized vehicle, however, is a 14-passenger 1967 GMC yellow school bus retired from Arlington.
It’s perfect for hauling produce to market and a key part of Wright’s humble persona, steeped in Eastern philosophy, and peppered with wit and pragmatism.
Why Gypsy Row Co.? Why not Gypsy Rows Farm?
“Company means people. I like that,” said Wright, who has been on the Snohomish Farmers Market Association board for four years, including his current term as president. “I didn’t really start to identify as a farmer until a few years ago. Now it’s just something I am. One day I realized: ‘I’m good at something.’”
Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog at www.heraldnet.com/ecogeek.
Now is the time to take advantage of the sunny days and fresh produce at local U-pick farms, roadside stands and farmers markets. Look for Gypsy Rows Co. sweet corn at the following farmers markets — five ears for $2 — in early September.
Mukilteo Farmers Market: 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sept. 26; Rosehill Community Center, 304 Lincoln Ave., Mukilteo; www.mukilteofarmersmarket.org; 425-750-6945.
Snohomish Farmers Market: 3 to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 27; old Carnegie Library, 105 Cedar St., Snohomish; www.snohomishmarkets.com; 206-412-4630.
Edmonds Museum Summer Market: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 6; Bell Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets; www.snohomishmarkets.com; 425-774-0900.
Everett Farmers Market: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30; Everett Marina, 1600 W. Marine View Drive; www.everettfarmersmarket.com; 425-258-3356.
More sweet corn sources
Most farms are open daily. Call for hours and to check availability.
Bailey Vegetables, 12711 Springhetti Road, Snohomish, 360-568-8826, www.baileycompost.com. U-pick fields are open now for a variety of vegetables, including sweet corn.
Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm, 10917 Elliott Road, Snohomish, 360-668-2506, www.bobscorn.net.
Carleton Farm, 830 Sunnyside Blvd. SE, Everett; 425-334-2297; www.carletonfarm.com.
The Farm, 7301 Rivershore Road, Snohomish, 425-334-4124, www.thefarm1.com.
Foster’s Produce and Corn Maze, 5818 Highway 530 NE, Arlington, 2.4 miles east of I-5 off Exit 208; 360-435-5095; www.fosterscornmaze.com.
Garden Treasures, 3328 Highway 530, Arlington, about mile east of I-5 off Exit 208; 360-435-9272.
Maltby Produce Market, 19523 Broadway, Maltby, kitty corner from Flower World; 360-668-0174; www.flowerworldusa.com.
Marshland Produce Market, 8102 Marsh Road, Snohomish; 360-563-9405; www.flowerworldusa.com.
Stocker Farms, 10622 Airport Way, Snohomish; 360-568-7391; www.stockerfarms.com. Buy the corn at the farm or at the Snohomish Farmers Market on Thursdays.
Don’t wait: For an enjoyable sweet corn experience, the most important thing, aside from good company, is shortening the time from field to table.
Supersweets, the most commonly grown corn, may stay sweet in storage, but they also tend to get chewy, and should be eaten as soon as possible.
Just like the best bread comes right out of a baker’s oven, the best sweet corn comes right from a farmer’s hand. Find a local source you trust, and support them.
How to check an ear of corn at market: Don’t rip the husk down. You’ll just upset the farmer. Instead, use your thumbnail to make a little slit in the husk near the tip — without disturbing the silk — and neatly pull the husk open a bit, like peeking through the drapes.
You need to peek only at the top third to know what the rest of the ear looks like. If the kernels are dented or tinting red it’s overripe, if they’re dull white or pointed it’s under ripe. The kernels should be plump and shiny. Err toward immaturity.
A kernel stabbed with a fingernail should squirt milky sap when ripe, but a doughy sap when overripe. Resist the urge to do this at market unless you plan to buy it, for obvious reasons.
Forgivable imperfections: If you find a little worm living in the tip, don’t panic; they don’t eat much, aren’t dangerous, and the pesticide alternative is far, far uglier. Simply cut the tip off.
If the kernels don’t go all the way to the top (tip fill), that’s OK. This is caused by stress, usually a stretch of dry weather, and the plant made best use of the resources it did have. It’s still just as tasty.
Source: Darren Wright of Gypsy Rows Co. farm of Silvana