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International competition and regulation two familiar challenges to sweet corn industry

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 8, 2017, 9:42 p.m.

Farmer Catalina Hernandez Calca harvests corn in Patzun, Guatemala, Thursday, Dec 11, 2008. Corn is the main crop in Guatemala. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd) (Associated Press)

Like much of American agriculture, the sweet corn industry’s main challenges are centered around international competition and what farmers and others in the agriculture industry call excessive regulation.

Kevin Moe, a seed representative with Syngenta, an international seed agrochemical business, said there is increasing foreign competition in the corn world.

“A lot of these other developing countries, right now they’re doing a lot of things just through brute force,” Moe said.

But in many places that’s changing. Increasing mechanization is allowing those countries to start competing with U.S. farmers.

“As they continue to learn … the technologies and practices we have they will just continue to grow and produce product cheaper than we can,” Moe said.

Moe also worries about changing consumer tastes.

“I really hope the consumer continues to eat more vegetables in the future,” he said.

Both for the health of the buyer and for the health of the industry. He believes that it’s increasingly important for corn processors to invest in blended bags of frozen vegetables – like mixing corn with peas, carrots and rice.

That, he said, could keep the consumer interested in corn.

Another challenge to the sweet corn industry is the ever-changing regulatory landscape, said Gary Ash, the manager of National Frozen Foods’ Moses Lake plant.

Most recently, the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act has challenged corn processors like National Frozen Foods Corp., Ash said.

“This plant produces food that was meant to be cooked,” he said.

But under FSMA the plant must produce corn that’s ready to eat. That change required the plant to institute stricter contamination barriers and procedures and clean the plant more regularly and intensely. Both have cost the plant, and by extension the farmer, money, Ash said.

“The industry really didn’t fathom how hard they would enforce it,” he said of FSMA.

“When they show up,” Ash said of inspectors, “it’s not a good day.”

Those regulations are overkill, he said, because the Moses Lake plant is one of the “premier veggie processing plants in the nation.”

They keep bacterial records and do self-inspections regularly, Ash said.

He isn’t opposed to the spirit of the regulation but does believe it’s gone too far.

President Donald Trump has signaled a willingness to reduce or remove certain agriculture regulations but so far hasn’t touched FSMA.