The first corn harvested in the U.S. this year will be at Yuma, AZ.

Corn's not a traditional crop in that low-desert area. But it has become a good rotation crop for some winter vegetable growers - an important consideration.

"We need other crops to follow the lettuce," says Ken Bingham, who's growing about 4,000 acres of corn this year. He's probably the biggest field corn grower in the area and one who has focused on it with a long-term commitment.

Bingham, who manages JV Farms for John and Vic Smith, utilizes a compressed growing season, an early harvest, and a method of drying corn that is still too wet to ship from the field. It gives him a shot at the food-grade corn market, too.

Since he first tried corn six years ago, he has evolved to minimum-till to get costs under control.

JV Farms plants hybrids that can be used for either livestock or human food. He plants with a cotton planter equipped with corn plates.

Corn can be planted there in February - just when he needs a rotation crop. He stops planting by April 1 to keep pollination ahead of the hottest summer weather.

Using seven irrigations on surface-irrigated, laser-leveled fields, his corn requires up to 3 1/2 acre-feet of water.

"We have to be very aggressive with our irrigations," he says, because summer heat of up to 120 degrees can be deadly.

His corn crops yield an average of 4 or 5 tons per acre, although he has gotten as much as 7 1/2 tons on isolated fields. He starts harvesting about July Fourth and goes for six weeks. JV Farms hires a Canadian custom harvester who brings five combines and gets the crop out quickly.

"We've put in two 1,000-ton overhead storage tanks," says Bingham. "We have a 50-ton-per-hour dryer."

In order to get his corn out in time to plant fall vegies, Bingham has to harvest at 22-25% moisture. That also prevents aflatoxin from becoming a problem in the hot, damp fields. Then he dries it to at least 15.5% moisture.

The dryer allows him to meet the 300 parts per billion of aflatoxin allowed in livestock feed, and he sometimes meets the 20 parts per billion allowable for human food. His tanks and dryer are located on a rail line, and he actually stores no corn - it's all shipped as soon as it's dried.

"We usually ship 30-40% by rail to Los Angeles to be sent to Japan," Bingham says.

Most of the rest is sold to Arizona or California cattle feeders. "Or we go to the food industry. The people who don't have dryers don't have a chance to do that."

He has invested in bottom-dump trailers for hauling corn from the fields to the dryer, but is able to use the same trucks that he uses for his vegetable trailers. The corn trailers also haul durum wheat, his other rotation crop.

Because his break-even price on corn is about $120 per ton, Bingham isn't making a lot of money on the crop. The small percentage that he sells for human consumption earns an extra $50 per ton.

Location is an advantage for him, since his is the only food- grade corn available in the U.S. that early. Bingham thinks higher rail freight rates in recent years have actually helped his feed sales - brokers from the Midwest or Texas can't compete with him for local feeders' business.

He says field corn became quite a local phenomenon last year after good corn prices in 1996. About 12,000 acres were grown. But with normal prices returning last year, he doesn't expect the upward trend to continue.

"This year that acreage will be back to the 5,000 range," he predicts.

Obviously, Bingham will have most of it.