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The last farmer of Florida's prized Zellwood corn is thinking of packing it in

MOUNT DORA

Hank Scott steps out of his pickup between the long rows and snaps off an ear that grows about bellybutton-high on the forehead-high stalks. Shucking it with a satisfying rip and not being too fussy about the rogue strands of silk, he bites into the bicolored ear, the back of his hand a napkin. Raw, no butter, nothing — it's just about perfect, its juice as sticky as peach dribbles. Scott, 61, wears a close-cropped gray beard and his reading glasses dangling from stretchy blue Croakies. His shirt is embroidered with the Long & Scott Farms logo, "Est. 1963." ¶ He and his family are the keepers and protectors of one of Florida's only remaining name brand foods. Folks know Plant City strawberries, they know Ruskin tomatoes and Indian River grapefruit. And they know Zellwood corn. Scott's Zellwood Triple-Sweet Gourmet Corn is proudly touted on menus in some of the state's best restaurants. It's a super-sweet, super-tender, super-premium corn that's in high season right now. ¶ The farm has beaten all odds, avoiding a massive government shutdown, even venturing into the trendy world of kale. ¶ But as consumers demand gourmet, local products more than ever, they also want them fast and cheap. And after all it has been through, Florida's most prized corn may be going extinct.

• • •

For decades, about a dozen farmers grew Zellwood corn in northwest Orange and Lake counties, nearly 20 square miles of ears drawing nourishment from the rich, marshy, mucky soil of nearby Lake Apopka. Zellwood was known all over as the corn capital of Florida and the eastern United States.

A programming note: Hank Scott is really Frank Scott III. His father is Frank Scott Jr., 84, and his son is Frank Scott IV, 33, but goes by Sonny.

In 1963, muck farmer Billy Long invited his childhood friend Frank Scott Jr. to grow corn with him in sand. They started with 100 acres and in good years they would buy more land. At peak, Billy Long and Frank Scott had 1,200 acres. Billy Long died in December.

"Anyone can farm in the muck," says Hank Scott. "This is like farming Daytona Beach."

Sand corn is more expensive to grow because of the extra fertilizer required to grow it. And in Florida, fall corn is harder to grow because of the shorter daylight hours and high pest pressures due to heat, humidity and summer storms.

Zellwood corn has two seasons: the end of April through June 10 and again from mid-September through November. At the same times of year since 1969, the Scotts also have been growing pickling cukes for Claussen. They pack six different sizes into 1-ton boxes for the pickle manufacturer and a smaller amount into nostalgic, wooden slatted baskets sold at upscale markets in Atlanta, the Bronx and other northeastern cities. When the corn and cukes aren't in season, Scott grows cabbage, kale and collards, but the money for that is drying up.

The corn stays mostly in Florida, much of it going to restaurants, and enjoys a celebrity status.

Chef Art Smith, once Oprah Winfrey's personal chef, has a portrait of Hank Scott and his dad in his Disney Springs restaurant, Homecoming. Larry the Cable Guy visited the farm for his Only in America show on the History Channel, doing doughnuts in the field on the farm tractor.

How did the Scotts become the last men standing? Look to the fish.

• • •

The beginning of the end for Zellwood corn may have had to do with professional embarrassment.

In 1992, seven teams of bass fishermen competed in the Bassmaster Florida Invitational on the Harris Chain of Lakes fed by waters from Lake Apopka. Ordinarily, two-person teams needed to haul in 16 bass with a total weight of 50 pounds to walk away with the $35,000 first-place check. This time, the winning team brought in just 14.6 pounds.

The competition took a hiatus for 10 years but confirmed what lots of anglers suspected: The bass were just about gone, the water quality affected by a half century of farmers allowing too much phosphorus runoff into the lake.

Before that, dozens of fish camps circled the lake and anglers came from all over the country for the legendary bass fishing regularly featured in sporting magazines. Luminaries like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable were said to be enthusiasts.

In an attempt to restore 20,000 acres of wetlands, the Lake Apopka Restoration Act curtailed what was estimated to be a $110 million industry. In 1998, at the behest of then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, and the St. Johns River Water Management District, the state bought up the farms for $91 million, closing them to facilitate an environmental cleanup of the lake. The move put more than 2,000 Zellwood farm workers out of jobs.

Restoration has been a painstaking process, according to Pam Bowen, an environmental scientist with St. Johns. Just after the buyout, there was a large bird die-off on the property. The culprit: fish with high pesticide residue.

Scientists began a series of restoration projects, monitoring fish and birds over time. They turned tainted soil deep and brought fresh soil to the surface and flooded the former farmland to create wetland. They removed almost 70,000 pounds of phosphorus from the lake and hired net fishermen to pull 25.5 million pounds of phosphorus-laden gizzard shad out of Lake Apopka to sell as bait.

They still have a lot of work to do on the north shore, Bowen said, moving wetlands from a heavily vegetated habitat to a more mixed marsh habitat, but that they are "very, very close" to their target levels of chemical residue.

As a trial balloon, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission oversaw the release of 1 million bass fingerlings into the lake in November.

• • •

One farm carried on.

While all this was happening, the state paid no attention to Hank Scott, because he grew his corn in sand, far from the water.

When all the Zellwood farmers went out of business, farmers in southern Georgia and Palm Beach County saw an opportunity and stepped up their planting of sweet corn.

"We'd lost our supporting cast and couldn't make any money," Hank says while watching cucumbers ride up a stainless steel vegetable escalator and plunge into a 33-degree water bath to take the morning's field heat out of them.

Hank met the challenge in a counterintuitive way, essentially by doubling down.

"I said, if we're going to grow this really finicky, gourmet corn, we had to set a price: 75 cents an ear."

South Georgia sweet corn can frequently be had for 25 cents an ear. Hank Scott says he gets 350 bushels per acre if he's lucky, all hand-harvested. In south Georgia, the yield is as much as 700 bushels per acre, "so they can sell it cheap."

FreshPoint in Orlando helped him develop the name Scott's Zellwood Triple-Sweet Gourmet Corn and they trademarked it in 2001. Around this time, restaurants started looking for name brand foods, and began asking for it every year.

In the grocery store, we buy with our eyes and often choose whatever is cheapest. At a farm-to-table restaurant, we may tuck away a memory of a particularly delicious food and seek it out again.

People remember Zellwood corn, so much so that some Florida restaurants have exploited that cachet, claiming to sell Zellwood corn when it's really a cheaper impostor.

• • •

Every May for nearly 40 years, the Zellwood Corn Festival kept those sweet ears in Floridians' heads. With nearly all of the Zellwood corn farmers out of business, it limped along until 2013.

Hank Scott has continued with what he calls the "agritainment" business, another way to make money at the farm. This fall will mark the 15th year that Long & Scott Farms has hosted a 7-acre corn maze, overseen by Hank's sister, Rebecca Ryan. Each year, the allures have grown: There is a super slide, a rock maze, catch-and-release fishing and, clearly de rigueur these days, zip lining. Hank's daughter, Haley Veilleux, runs the farm market and cafe, and the farm regularly hosts weddings, tours and special events.

Still, margins are tight and getting tighter. Hank points to a phenomenon that not many people are talking about, an unintended consequence of the fresh-food revolution. Eschewing frozen and canned foods, younger generations want fresh, but with a caveat.

"Millennials are looking for convenience. They want bagged salads, slaw mixes. Nobody is buying a whole cabbage these days."

This year, he says, everybody overplanted kale, anticipating the kale craze would continue unabated, and thus wholesale kale prices plummeted. But the bigger problem for farmers is that they have to sell their kale, their collards, their cabbage to a middleman, someone who chops, bags and brands it.

"I'll sell a box of kale for $6," Hank said. "They'll chop it up and bag it and they make $130 with that. We're on the wrong end of it. Something is going to have to change or they're going to run out of people to grow for them."

Hank watches a crew of field hands harvest cucumbers onto a conveyor belt set up in the field, which dumps them into a huge bathtub gondola. Cukes that are small on the bloom end indicate a pollination problem; if they're small on the stem end, it's a nutrient problem. Too big and they're good for nothing more than cow feed. As much as 20 percent of any harvest is waste. People won't buy it if it's not perfect.

With the corn, the biggest problem, aside from marauding birds in the fall, is a "weak tip," where the kernels don't fill all the way to the top of the ear, something that can be felt during hand-harvesting. The Scotts usually get one ear per plant.

High-tech programs in Illinois and other states now breed corn for things like height on the stalk, tip fill and number of rows of kernels. At Long & Scott, the priorities are sweetness, tenderness and longevity. And for now, there are plenty of takers.

But with fields fallow during the summer and less money coming in for shoulder-season crops, the future is uncertain.

"People are starving all over the world and you've got fields of cabbage and pickles and nobody wants them. It's aggravating," Hank says, again behind the wheel of his pickup. "I'd like my kids to find something that's a little more lucrative."

Outside the smudgy truck window, a giant mound of stubby cucumbers, enough to fill a bounce house, bakes silently in the early afternoon sun, waiting for nobody.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.


If you go

Long & Scott Farms is located at 26216 County Road 448A in Mount Dora; (352) 383-6900. The market is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

     
                   
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