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Lone farm sustains corn festival

Only Hank Scott stands between a living tradition and oblivion for the event.

An ear of corn falls off a conveyor belt, landing in the scraps and tatters of a harvest under way.

Farmer Hank Scott fishes it out, tugs off the shuck, and reveals the pride of his farm. It's also the pride of the Zellwood corn region and, as it turns out, the sole surviving cause to celebrate the Zellwood Corn Festival this weekend.

Boiled down, Scott runs the area's last corn farm.

"Now that's an ear of corn," he says.

Scott bites into raw kernels that burst with juice as sweet and sticky as honey water. He wipes the back of an arm across his mouth, smiling a little.

As Zellwood sweet corn goes, this spring's crop is particularly mouth-watering, a gift of cooperative weather.

Scott's mechanical picker and crew of 26 packers are bringing in 4,000 crates a day. A crate holds about 50 ears.

It's good that Scott grows corn. If he didn't, the festival might have to be renamed for one of his other crops _ the Zellwood Cucumber Festival, the Zellwood Cilantro Festival, the Zellwood Parsley Festival or the Zellwood Sod Festival.

The corn festival started in the 1970s as a modest "corn boil" to raise money for community needs. In time, the event north of Orlando gained as much fame as the corn.

That all happened in the years that Zellwood in northwest Orange County was home to farms bigger than some towns. Together, they covered nearly 20 square miles of the marshy, mucky soil along nearby Lake Apopka.

But then the state bought the farms, closing them in the late 1990s for environmental cleanup of the long-abused lake.

Only the government ignored Scott. His farm covers sandy fields too far from the lake to be part of the restoration effort.

Last year, visitors ate or carted home 4,000 crates of corn. Scott grew all of it.

A repeat is expected this weekend. And that makes Scott, president of Long & Scott Farms, the festival's savior.

"As long as Mr. Scott is out here growing corn, we're going to have our festival," said Thom Brasseur, festival chairman.

Brasseur concedes that Zellwood sweet corn isn't from a particular variety of seed. But only sweet corn that pops out of the ground in the Zellwood region deserves the name.

That rules out holding a festival with corn imported from South Florida or elsewhere.

For now, and perhaps years to come, Scott can satisfy the festival appetite with just one day's harvest. His entire spring harvest lasts through most of May and June.

Only a fraction of his corn winds up for sale in Central Florida. Most goes off to markets as far away as New York and Europe.

For most Central Floridians, the best chance to eat Zellwood corn is at the Zellwood festival.

This season's corn will be bigger, plumper and sweeter than that of past festivals.

That's because the current growing season has been drier than normal, making it easier for Scott to precisely control irrigation and fertilizer.

Too much rain, like last year, washes away fertilizer and kills roots.

"You don't want corn to ever run out of anything it needs, and that's why that corn is so nice," Scott said. "It never wanted for anything."