Corn has an image problem. In recent years, in certain circles, among people who “know a few things”, and so think they know everything.
“Everyone knows” that all corn is genetically modified. That it’s subsidized. That it’s a monoculture. A commodity. That it pollutes the water, since it takes a lot of fertilizer to grow. That, well, it’s just bad.
When I go certain places, I do not tell anyone that our farm grows corn.
It’s unfortunate corn’s recent history has given it such a bad name. Maiz, as it’s known in the rest of the world, has fueled civilizations for millenia since it was selected and improved by ancient Mexican farmers from a native grass called Teocinte
. It’s evolutionary success is rivaled only a few other compatriots in the plant world: rice, sweet potatoes and wheat.
It’s true that most of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Much of that corn is what is called “feed corn” — grown to feed chickens, pigs, and cows. It is harvested as dried kernels. A significant percentage is used to produce ethanol. And high fructose corn syrup. It is also used to make beer, polenta, corn flour and hundreds of products generally considered in a more positive light. It is naturally gluten-free but all the genetic engineering in the world could not make it low in carbohydrates.
Decades ago, all corn was grown as a dried grain. But farmers would harvest a few immature, fresh ears to eat and maybe sell. But those days are long passed. As demand for fresh corn grew, plant breeders started selecting seeds that produced ears that were sweeter and more tender. They also focused on varieties that grew more quickly and produced shorter plants. The sweet corn we grow at Terra Firma may be related to feed corn, but it’s more like a distant cousin than a sibling.
From an eater’s perspective, sweet corn is more of a vegetable than a grain, and it’s considered one by the USDA. Like most vegetables, sweet corn has a relatively short shelf life and must be refrigerated during the entire time between harvest and cooking. Left at room temperature for any length of time, the husks begin to dry and the tender, sugary kernels convert to chewy starch. Sweet corn tastes best if you eat it within 2 days of harvest. This is the reason it’s grown on a tiny fraction of the acreage of its cousin, and most of that is destined for the frozen food aisle.
Sweet corn performs an important role in our crop rotation at Terra Firma. Despite being grown as a vegetable, sweet corn is still a grain, which means it’s a grass — the only one we grow. As such, it is largely immune to many of the plant diseases (although not insects) that attack the rest of the crops we grow, which are so-called Broadleaves. Including corn in our rotation means that for a whole summer, the pathogens that infect our tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and other plants have nothing to feed on. So they die. And the vegetables that we plant after the corn is harvested are healthier.
Speaking of “after harvest”, we make good use of the large amount of biomass that is left over after we pull the ears off our sweet corn. We send the sheep in to graze the field. They love both the green leaves and the sugary stalks of the corn plants, and eat them down to the ground. That speeds the task of getting the field ready for our next crop, since they leave almost nothing behind them except manure.
With this information in hand, you are now safe to enjoy your Terra Firma sweet corn without feeling guilty. And if you’re at a July 4th barbecue with an ear in your hand and someone tries to tell you how it’s subsidized, GMO, yadda-yadda…just tell them you are eating certified organic, non-GMO Terra Firma Elote. But make sure you have a mouth full of kernels when you say it.