Heirloom corn

Being in and amongst small scale, organic, or otherwise not-conventional farmers, I hear corn (maize) get a bad rap all the time. The American industrial farming behemoth (and also much of the world's) is built around corn, and secondly soy. Nutritionally, it doesn’t have as much protein as most other grains, and is comparatively short on nutrition and high on pure carbohydrates. It’s what powers the global meat industry, it’s almost “too big to fail” and so seems to get the most attention from farmers, lobbyists, and politicians. I think. So many in the non conventional farming community seem to latch on to it as “the big boogy man,” whether they are against corn subsidies for ethanol, against the large scale meat industry in general, or just plain ornery about things.

Well, I’ve got something to say about that. For starters, I’ll say that my brother and I who were homeschooled were allowed to pursue plenty of subjects at will, and one of those subjects was the cultures and history of the Native Americans, especially of North America. We were obsessed. In the summers, we would pick different tribal traditions to emulate- one day we read a book about the Iroquois of our native state of New York, and so tried to build a miniature longhouse, cook bad imitations of their traditional foods on a campfire, etc. Other weeks, we’d pick a different tribal tradition to study and go out to “play” that particular way. Imitation Lakota tipis got built. Dry cowpies were gathered and used as fuel for very smoky, gross campfires, after we read that the Lakota used dried bison dung in their fires. And so on and so forth. 

So, I spent my entire childhood steeped in awareness of how much the agriculturalist Native Americans revered and loved corn. It came up frequently in all the books I devoured on Native cultures. The American biome had no other grain so productive to choose from. Aztecs grew grain amaranth as well, and the Inca cultures had quinoa (again, not as productive by any measure, by labor input or by land). So many cultures had reverent stories of how corn was given to them by the gods themselves. Its amazing role in supporting mixed polyculture (not just “the Three Sisters” but many variations thereof) is based on how quickly it accumulates biomass, how quickly it becomes self-sustaining, and can allow for other crops to be grown amongst it if you so choose. I read somewhere that the Aztecs had corn, beans, squash, peppers, and tomatoes, all in a polyculture setting. The Five Sisters?

So I have to say I’m incredibly grateful for that strong foundation of understanding, passed on from Native American cultures, to me or any child ready to read about it. I really wish people would step back and ask what is with their corn-hatred. If you dislike government subsidies, that's one thing. If you are against industrial meat production, then say so. But corn is just the tall-enough plant sitting there to be blamed for all these things, but really our culture is what needs reflection. Our desire for reliably cheap food, at all costs (those hidden societal costs, in how we treat our land like a strip mine, or how we allow industrial scale meat production that goes against all our instincts as an ethical way to treat another living being). It’s not unlike the recent backlash against palm oil. Palm oil is being blamed for taking down rain forests, but it’s the most productive food oil crop, on a per acre basis, in the world. So to hate on palm oil, you may be influencing farmers, and the markets, to destroy even more ecosystems in order to grow the other less effective oil crops. It's the Murphy's Law intersection with the unintended consequences of good intentions.

Every year that I grow corn, I feel privileged to be a part of this greater tradition from the natives of this continent. I am not a spiritual person any more, leaving my own European-sourced hand-me-down religion, but I am sure that if any gods exist, they made corn for us and we should be grateful for such a productive grain well suited to our North American climate. Sowing and hilling a couple hundred plants, I feel a connection to the Natives who domesticated it and spread it, and to the continent that my ancestors are more recent arrivals to. “Taking back” corn and remembering it is the Sacred Grain, as sacred as anything can be in this world, is something I hope to do.


PS, the varieties I’m growing this year are almost all from Fedco, my favorite seed company. They’re way out there in Maine. Many Indigenous-sourced seeds that they sell have royalty payments paid to the tribes they’re from or to non-profits connected to those tribes. I have Abenaki Calais, Hopi Blue, Painted Mountain, and Japanese Hulless Popcorn. I lost a few seeds to cold nighttime temperatures so I bought a generic-seeming type called Earth Tones Dent and interplanted it in the vacant spots. I hope to keep some of the more interesting cobs to develop my own landrace (the term for a collection of heirloom seed that is not rigorously bred to specific traits, but simply selected over time for its success in an area.) Painted Mountain is the result of such efforts by a Montana farmer named Dave Christensen. With all my varieties sown the same day, Painted Mountain germinated the best, and has grown the most with sturdy stalks, so I suspect my home-selected landrace will be overwhelmingly Painted Mountain, with some new genetics supplied by the others.

PPS- I got so excited talking about corn that I started browsing for more Native sourced corn seed from as close to home as possible, and found this project, Ganondagan , which is repopularizing a native Iroquois corn variety called Iroquois White. They aren't selling the seed as of yet, but have flour and parched corn made from it. A fast search for places selling the seed has yielded a few places selling something also labelled "Cherokee White" that doesn't seem to be the same authentic thing.

My own goals as a gardener are not to carefully isolate each of these heirlooms- I'll play the role of a lone tinkerer making a local mishmash. Thankfully, there are people who work to maintain the traits of all the hundreds of heirlooms out there. I thought I had it tough with 120+ heirloom garlic types but it's a largely asexual crop, I just have to keep the bulbs physically separated. Corn people actually have to intervene every year to keep varieties steady and true to their traits. It's good to support places like Fedco which are making efforts to pay royalties to the Native communities, or interesting projects like Ganondagan working to create a market for finished products from these heirlooms.


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