When Terry Dunn runs into a customer unfamiliar with his trademark bicolor sweet corn, he often asks a question.
[cleeng_content id="964168358" description="Read it now!" price="0.15"]“I’ll pull open an ear and ask if they’d like to try it,’’ says Dunn, a 58-year-old Jefferson County native and lifelong farmer. “A lot of times they will – and then they’ll buy a whole dozen, maybe two or three. Even raw, this is great-tasting corn.”
Through much of this month, the business of sweet corn will keep things busy for Dunn, who bought his 122-acre farm on Middleway Pike in 1972, the same year he graduated from Charles Town High School.
A boldly hued yellow and green sign along W.Va. 51 just west of Charles Town directs locals and passersby to Dunn’s Beckwith Farms a mile away.
In the driveway in front of his house, he, his wife, Frances, or one of his part-time workers spends from seven days a week moving corn from farm wagons into plastic bags for the customers who pull in.
On a recent morning, cars bearing license plates from West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland were lined up.
“One thing people like is that our corn is picked fresh,’’ said Dunn, who grew up helping his parents, Gladys and Stanley Dunn Sr., and six older siblings on the family poultry farm in Middleway. “The corn we’re selling this morning, I just picked an hour ago.”
Harvesting corn is much easier since he introduced an automatic picker, purchased in 2007 from a fellow farmer in Frederick, Md. “A single-row picker, new, goes for $40,000. I couldn’t do that, but I had to do something or get out of the business. I just couldn’t pick corn by hand anymore.”
When Dunn first began to grow sweet corn in 1987, his young children pitched in. “My wife and I would pick the corn and the kids would carry buckets full over to the farm wagon,” he said.
As demand for his corn grew, Dunn expanded his fields, eventually reaching his current 10 acres. He also began to position his tractor and farm wagon along each row as the corn was picked, letting the machine trample down the row of corn that had just been picked.
No more lugging buckets of corn eased the job a bit – but Dunn said the kids still voiced complaints. “It’s hard work, no question about it,” he said. “You’re out in the heat every day, all day long, just to keep up.”
For many summers, Dunn would ask family members and others to help. He said finding able bodies willing to tackle the work wasn’t easy.
“I’d call on my sons-in-law on the weekends, on friends, anybody I could think of who knew how to pick corn,’’ he said.
He started selling corn for the season just on Tuesday. Many years, the corn season begins around Independence Day, but this year Dunn had to hold off because the corn wasn’t quite ready.
“That’s something you can’t predict – it all depends on Mother Nature,” he said.
He started irrigating his fields last week to help combat the intense heat.
A typical workday has changed since the days when Dunn picked corn by hand. “Before, you’d want to get out early in the morning before it got so hot and get the picking done,’’ he said. “The automatic picker works better if everything’s dry. Now what I try to do is just pick enough at a time to keep a load ready to sell. When we’ve almost sold it all, I’ll go out and pick another wagon full.”
Dunn grows only bicolor corn and says he never grows tired of eating it. He was introduced to the supersweet commodity by his oldest brother, Stanley Dunn Jr. Also a farmer in Jefferson County, Stanley offered the Dunns some ears from a field where he had planted both white and yellow corn seeds.
“The two had gotten crossed and the result was some great corn,” Dunn recalls. “The white is usually sweeter and the yellow has more flavor. The combination of the two just has a really good taste to it.”
At first Dunn grew just enough corn for his own family. At the time, his main farm business was selling eggs to stores and schools across the region.
A few years after he entered the sweet corn business and found a seed company offering a bicolor corn that he found so pleasing he’s grown it ever since.
Dunn says he now sells 90 percent of his corn from his own farm. “The only other place that I still sell to is Crowell’s Village Store in Martinsburg,’’ he said. “That’s where I sold my eggs for years and years and they’ve always been very good to me.”
Helen Crowell says Dunn’s sweet corn is a hot commodity at her market at 805 N. Queen St. “It’s the best and we get people coming in from all over to get it,’’ she said.
Dunn, who retired last month after 37 years as a bus driver for the county school system, at one time thought he might follow his three sisters into a career in education.
“I had a hip problem diagnosed as a child and our doctor told my parents I shouldn’t plan on a profession that was at all strenuous,’’ Dunn said. “So I planned to go to Shepherd [University] and then get a job teaching social studies.”
But he found himself still focused on farming. “I had that yearning,’’ he said. “And during my senior year, things started to fall into place after my dad ran out of hay for his farm and had to buy some.’’
He accompanied his father on the hay purchase and they learned the farm was for sale. “My parents helped me buy it and then over the next year, my mom and dad both worked to help me get the farmhouse back in shape. They helped me in lots of ways to get my farm going.”
While the Panhandle continues to see farmland give way to housing developments, Dunn says he feels sure he selected the right career path.
“I don’t know if I would have made it as a teacher,’’ he said. “Driving the bus mornings and afternoons is about as much as I want to be tied up. I love being out here, working on the farm. People love sweet corn and look forward to it every year, and I love growing it.”