Corn is Complicated: 2019 Summer CSA, Week 12

July 29- August 4, 2019

Corn is biologically tricky to grow and make look good. Corn is in thousands of foods, drinks, cosmetics, and plastics. Corn is the most commonly used grain for beef, dairy, pork, and poultry. Sweet corn is not the same as cow corn. Genetic modification of corn is the norm, not the exception. There are lots of misconceptions about corn, so we will try to clear up some popular thoughts. 

Corn is an annual grass plant with its ancestral roots, as maize, in Mexico. It is known to be one of the earliest plants domesticated by the native population, and by extension, the beginning of agriculture in this hemisphere. Seeds from the best plants would be saved for the next crop. By selecting for ear size, kernel size, and how easily it could be ground for meal, people discovered if you grow two different kinds next to each other, the resulting crop was better than either one by itself. This is now known as cross pollination, which creates hybrid vigor.

The tassel at the top of the plant, which is the male part of the flower, sheds millions of pollen grains when the plant reaches sexual maturity. These tiny particles can be airborne for miles. The female portion of the flower is the ear with silks that extend into the air to catch the falling pollen. Each silk is actually a tube that must catch a pollen grain, then migrate it through the tube to fertilize the zygote, thus forming a kernel. Each kernel has its own silk. If these silks are damaged by insects or weather conditions, a kernel will not be formed. When they do, the birds, skunks, and raccoons consider it one of their favorite foods. Even though we plant 20,000 to 30,000 seeds per acre, all of the factors influence the ultimate quality of the crop.

Virtually all the corn you see along the roadway when traveling is grown for livestock feed or ethanol. One must marvel at the efficiency of the industry, but the politics of the insidious environmental impact are sordid. Beyond the fertilizer and pesticide laden soil particles carried from the field that have contributed to the hypoxia dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, is the genetic manipulation that spreads itself around in those pollen grains. Somehow, someone has figured out how to spray an herbicide that kills every species of plant in the field, except the corn, protected by genetic modification. They have also figured out where the genes for a particular trait are on the chromosome. This gives them the ability to alter the DNA for commercial purposes.

At one point, a gene was inserted in the genetic material of many species of plants so farmers and gardeners could not harvest and save the seeds for future crops. This became known as the terminator gene, which subsequently did not receive a patent due to public outcry over the potential harm to small, poor farmers, especially in developing countries where seed saving is a ritual from the beginning of their culture, and a necessity.

The genetically altered plants are the intellectual property of the company that developed such plants; therefore, all the ensuing offspring belong to them. Because of pollen drift, this intellectual property may move across the landscape, infecting the corn crop of unsuspecting farmers growing non-GMO corn. In some cases, these same farmers have been sued for stealing this intellectual property. Yes, it is astonishing.

Absolutely no GMOs are allowed in Certified Organic foods. Organic corn farmers must have a physical separation from a neighbor’s GMO corn crop and must also have a pollination date buffer to prevent cross pollination and infection of the organic crop. Something is not quite right about organic farmers having to shrink the amount of their production to preserve crop integrity, while the commercial GMO corn grower can plant right up to the edge of the property boundary.

Now, let’s think about sweet corn. As the Native American people were growing corn for dry grain, there is evidence they may have begun to eat the kernels while still soft, possibly because of the need for sustenance during long dry summers. This led them to purposely cross-pollinate different types and select certain varieties for sweetness and taste.

Many years later, there are now thousands of commercially available varieties for farmers and gardeners to grow. The varieties may be yellow, white, or bi-color and range from traditional open-pollinated heirloom varieties, to hybrids developed through cross-pollination, to genetically modified organisms. Generally, the varieties are classified by their days to maturity after planting and other attributes that may be associated with them. For example, we select varieties that tolerate cold conditions for early planting, others for later plantings.

At farmers markets, people still ask for Silver Queen, a white corn variety known for size and sweetness, grown in home gardens for generations. Some people ask for Peaches n Cream, an early bi-color super sweet corn. With improved breeding techniques, varieties have been developed known as super sweet, which means the sugar in the kernel does not convert to starch as rapidly after picking compared to varieties like Silver Queen. The conversion of sugar to starch is a protection mechanism as the goal of the plant is to make a viable seed, not feed us. 

At Elmwood Stock Farm, we plant several varieties with the plan to harvest sweet corn several weeks during the summer for your share. We mine the data of variety trials conducted by university researchers and consult with other market farmers on which varieties perform well, which varieties are available as certified organic, and most important, which varieties taste great for you. Truthfully, the quality of the corn is dependent on stage of maturity at picking, post-harvest cooling, delay until cooking, and cooking technique, so please don’t get hung up on a variety name.

When you see kernels not filled out at the tip, that means a few silks were damaged by insects or dry weather at silking, and that area is a very small portion of the ear. If the early varieties get off to a good start, they will pollinate before the silk-clipping insects show up that reduce kernel fertilization. But, if the cold soil gives poor germination, the early crop may have ears that are not fully filled out. This can also happen in extreme heat. Later in the season, it is difficult to keep the earworm out of the end of the ear organically, while commercially raised corns may have numerous pesticides applied to look perfect.

The corn you see driving down the road is probably not sweet corn, but it may have an impact on sweet corn growing nearby. The sweet corn you get from Elmwood Stock Farm is not GMO, but rather corn raised with careful consideration of organic principles when navigating production systems. Sometimes we cut away that troublesome little bit at the tip, so you have access to all the responsibly raised good stuff under the husk. You can enjoy every kernel for what it is, and likewise for what it is not. – Mac Stone

In Your Share

  • Cabbage
  • Sweet Corn
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Summer Squash
  • Surprise Me!
  • Salad Tomatoes
  • Slicing Tomatoes


Check out our Pinterest board for this week’s recipes!

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