Jeff Werner stands in a field of corn at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm
Regardless of the urban legend that corn is nearly impossible to grow in Alaska, it can be done. Several farmers in the Tanana Valley and Matanuska Valley are successful with corn, as are researchers at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm on the UAF campus.
When his plot of corn tasseled July 27, research professional Jeff Werner was elated. “Tell me I can’t grow corn,” he declared. “Anything can be done if you want to do it, you try hard, and have an attitude of success. Watching this corn tassel is amazing and incredible.” When tassels appear, pollen falls onto the ears, a necessary stage for the corn’s development.
Werner and Professor Meriam Karlsson have been growing corn for eight years. “It’s good corn too,” Werner said. Their secret is simple: fertilizer with lots of nitrogen and plenty of water. Selecting the right seed is also crucial. Supersweet Bi-color and Bodacious are two good varieties this summer. Werner purchased the seed commercially, potted it in the greenhouse on May 15, and transplanted to the field the first week of June. He advised that the soil needs to be at least sixty degrees before planting. The seedlings were tucked in tightly with IRT film and outfitted with drip tape to ensure the plants get enough water.
Although Fairbanks is known for its twenty-four-hour sunlight in the summer, by late July the days are down to eighteen hours, providing the night that corn requires. “It’s just dark enough that they are starting to do great things,” Werner said.
Growing corn may be fun, but it also provides serious research opportunities. Dr. Karlsson measures the photosynthesis of the corn during periods of extreme daylight, along with plant nutrition required for plant growth. Each year after harvest the leaves are ground up to be analyzed in the lab. “We want to learn how to grow even better corn,” Werner explained. “It’s not going to be an Iowa market but it helps with sustainability.”
Dr. Karlsson added, “It’s never going to be a big crop in Alaska but people like to grow it because there is nothing like fresh corn. The belief is that if you can grow corn in Alaska you are a good gardener.”
Ongoing corn research is conducted at the Georgeson Botanical Garden, with trials focusing on types of plastics that warm the soil. A new project at Chena Hot Springs Resort will find Werner and a graduate student piping warm air from the hot springs into the corn rows to keep the plants from freezing in August when the nights cool off.
Fairbanksans will have the opportunity to see corn on the stalk at the Tanana Valley Fair Aug. 7–15. Dr. Karlsson and Werner, who are responsible for the demonstration garden at the fairgrounds, included some rows of Bodacious corn in the mix of vegetables and herbs.
“In Fairbanks we can grow just about anything if we try,” Werner said, eyeing rows of his newest crop, honeydew melons.
"IRT-76 Polyethylene Mulch Film and Growth of Sweet Corn in Fairbanks, Alaska," SNRAS Research Progress Report, April 1991, by Grant Matheke, Patricia Holloway, Patricia Wagner (PDF)