Corn has been the Shenot family's star crop for more than 150 years

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

These days, when it’s tougher than ever to make a living off the land, Shenot Farm and Market is flourishing.

The Shenots have growing fruits and vegetables on the same 100-plus hilly acres in Marshall for more than 150 years, ever since Christopher Scheno and his wife, Margreta, emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine in France with their five children and bought the property off Wexford Run Road.

Initially every harvest was for their own consumption. But with every generation, operations were expanded to sell fresh and quality produce. Fourth-generation John Wilson Shenot, known as Bill, took over the reins in the 1950s and made Shenot’s an institution. Along with hauling his crop to farmers markets, he opened a roadside stand in the 1960s that eventually evolved into a full-fledged farm market while carving out a niche for what would become its star product — sweet corn.

On a typical summer day, Shenot Farm sells anywhere from 200 to 500 dozen ears of corn. All are harvested by hand early in the morning, when sugar content is highest. Bill’s 41-year-old grandson, Rob Shenot, does most of the picking, with a small crew of teenage workers catching the corn in a mesh bag as he tosses it forward.

The trend today is toward “supersweets” like “Krispy King” that boast up to twice the amount of sugar as traditional varieties like “Silver Queen.” Shenot’s favors sugar-enhanced varieties like “Allure” and “Primus” that while also sweet, are tender and loaded with “corny” flavor.

“We like the way it pops right off the cob,” the younger Shenot says. “We want the eating experience to be as great as the flavor.”

Consumers no longer desire the yellow “Golden Bantam” his grandfather built his reputation on, thinking (incorrectly) that white or bi-color corn is sweeter. In truth, it’s the genetic variety that determines flavor and texture, Mr. Shenot says. Customers also want corn that doesn’t have to be thrown into a pot of boiling water within hours of being picked before the sugar converts to starch in the kernels. Today’s sweeter corns have a longer shelf life, lasting a couple of days in the fridge.

What really determines taste is when the corn is harvested. Pick too early and the kernels won’t achieve maximum sweetness. Pick too late and the corn will be tough and starchy.

“Timing is everything. Even one day can make a difference,” he says.

On a recent morning, he shows how it’s done. Standing between two rows of 6-foot-tall “Providence” corn, he first examines the silks to see if they’ve turned from light gold to dark brown. After that, it’s all by feel. A ready ear is one that’s not too fat or too small, with kernels that reach all the way to the tip. Each variety is a little different, he notes as he gives it a squeeze. When the husk starts to loosen up, it’s another sign of maturity.

The row is ready. Nate Bateman, a 14-year-old Pine-Richland freshman, is tasked with bagging the corn.

Grasping an ear firmly in each hand, Mr. Shenot pulls it down, twists and pulls it off the stalk. He repeats the process immediately with the next two stalks. He then tosses the four ears forward, where Nate catches it in a mesh bag as he inches backward down the 3-foot-wide aisle. Once they hit four dozen, Nate tosses the bag into the truck lane so that it can be picked up and transferred to the farm’s cooler.

The picking motion is quick and not without peril. The bees who hang out on the silks get stuck if there’s heavy dew. A picker also has to watch out for horse nettle. Both sting.

This season got off to a bit of a rocky start because of the chilly, wet spring and a late frost in May that wrecked havoc on their apple and peach trees. Planting eventually started in late March and early April. “We couldn’t get it in fast enough,” Mr. Shenot says.

Every four or five days saw a new planting, and the first ears came off the stalk about a week after July 4. They were still planting through mid-July to make sure there’s corn through early October.

An 8-foot deer fence keeps hungry deer at bay, and Mr. Shenot is always on the lookout for the earworms that like to eat their way down the silks to the kernels.

People might hate the recent hot, sticky and humid weather, he adds, but corn loves it.

Here’s another fun fact: There’s a piece of silk for every kernel on the cob, and it’s hollow to provide a roadway for pollen to travel to the ear’s ovary and fertilize it to form the seed.

Most of Shenot Farm’s sweet corn is sold in its retail market, with some ears occasionally going to other farm markets to help fill voids. This year, it’s $8 a dozen. Mr. Shenot, who already is schooling his 4-year-old daughter, Pepper, on the art of corn growing, suggests steaming it only until it’s hot enough to melt butter for the best flavor.

A lot of prospective farmers struggle with the transition between one generation and the next, says Mr. Shenot, who inherited his passion for farming from his father, Ed. Land transfers are as complicated as family dynamics. The work itself is hard, and never-ending. Droughts, late frosts, hungry insects — it all takes a toll on the pocketbook. “And new generations often have new ideas” that make change difficult, he notes.

Mr. Shenot has wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps long before he decided to study horticulture like his dad at Penn State. He graduated in 2001.

In a way he’s an anomaly. There are fewer younger farmers these days. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer now is 57.5 years, up 1.2 years from 2012.

Some of that is undoubtedly attributed to the fact that farmers, even if they can afford it, are loathe to retire. Ed and his wife, Mary Lou, still work long hours on the farm. He continues to plant most of the corn one acre at a time, and she churns out many varieties of creamy, homemade fudge that are impossible to resist on a visit to the store.

Spouses, too, help in keeping the ag operations run efficiently. Mr. Shenot’s wife, Leah, oversees the farm’s website and social media accounts. Before the virus crisis, she ran the farm-to-table dinners they held on site. Along with seasonal and a handful of full-time workers who help harvest and man the store, the Shenots have one full-time employee in the field, field manager Duane Grimm.

Farming is “the definition of insanity,” says Mr. Shenot, laughing. It’s sometimes hard and can test your patience, but it has its rewards.

“At the end of the day, when you see someone buying or eating your corn, it’s so satisfying,” he says.