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A Welcome Summer Tradition, Sweet Corn Returns To Wichita

Not much about this summer can be considered normal.

Many traditional summer activities – camps for kids, concerts, baseball games – have been canceled. The few activities that are taking place are proceeding with great caution and lots of social distancing.

But a bit of normalcy arrived a few weeks ago when the distinctive green and yellow Gaeddert Farms sweet corn stands began sprouting up in parking lots across the Wichita area.

"As soon as the stands go up, the phone starts ringing like crazy," said Tonya Martisko, who owns and operates the business along with her sister, Julie Ball.

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Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Meredith Vaughn buys corn from Ben Pankratz. Vaughn says with the state fair canceled this year, she wants to learn how to roast her own corn.

That’s because long-time customers know what the stands mean: delicious sweet corn, in addition to a variety of other farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.

"Oh my gosh, it's seriously the best corn I've had," said Meredith Vaughn after she purchased two dozen ears of corn one recent morning at the stand near Central and West.

It’s not unusual to see customers lined up at stands early, waiting for produce to arrive. At the Central and West stand, customers started making purchases 30 minutes before the stand technically was supposed to open.

"We do get a lot of people return and usually we know them by name," said Ben Pankrantz, who has worked that stand for several years. "It's nice to see our product provide that incentive to keep people coming back."

The corn comes from the 100 acres Gaeddert Farms plants every spring in Buhler. The planting is staggered so fresh corn ripens throughout the six-to-eight week summer selling season.

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Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Ben Pankratz packages the corn, 13 ears to a bag. He has worked for Gaeddert Farms for several years.

The corn is picked fresh daily. Whatever isn’t sold that day is donated to a local food bank.

Martisko and Ball have been in the corn business for more than 30 years. As kids, they sold corn from a stand in front of their grandparents' house.

"We were happy to get 10 customers a day," Martisko said.

They do considerably more business now.

From a single retail location in 1996, Gaeddert Farms now has 11 stands in seven cities, including Wichita, Derby, Andover and Newton. They also staff farmers markets in Wichita and Hutchinson. And they added an online shopping component this year.

The operation has about 50 summer employees, many of whom are teachers. That’s why the stands normally close in mid-August when school resumes.

Martisko says the recent farm-to-table movement has helped the company’s business, which normally offers about a dozen other produce items in addition to corn.

"I think we've been seeing more of a trend for that in the last couple of years, especially this year," she said.

"We're able to provide a lot of different options for people, and when they are looking for that homegrown local produce, we have it there for them. So that has been a positive trend for us."

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Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW
Gaeddert Farms' produce stands offer more than corn. Co-owner Tonya Martisko says business has gotten a boost from the growing farm-to-table movement.

Another positive for Martisko: getting to work on the family farm with her sister, children and parents. Both Martisko and Ball were working other jobs when they decided to make a full-time commitment to the farm business about 20 years ago.

"This living on the farm is something that we always wanted to do to, to get back to the country life," Martisko said. “And this was one way we thought we could do that.

"It's fun that we get to work together, and we get to be around our family."

Fun — but still a lot of work. Especially during corn season, a sprint that lasts from late June until the middle of August.

"I leave the house at 4:30 in the morning," Martisko said. "I get home around 8:30 at night, so it's long hours, long days.

"But in the end, it's all worth it."

Tom Shine is the director of news and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @thomaspshine. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.