Corn: How do you like yours?

What tastes better than fresh hot – almost-too-hot-to-hold – corn on the cob, still sweet from picking?  Whether each succulent kernel is coated in melted butter, or my new favorite, melted blue cheese (I get an award winning block of Blue Paradise from its friendly creators Tony and Julie Hook ) at the Dane County Farmers Market and add it to the fresh corn in my dangerously heavy shopping bag every Saturday.)

Corn on the Cob from Farmer Bob.

Corn on the Cob from Farmer Bob.

Soon, I will be growing my own corn, and perhaps it will be one of the crops that I contribute to the local food chain.  Through constant study, Doug and I are slowly cultivating our farming plan and taking baby steps toward real food production.  See my post Buckwheat Beginnings.  I am leaning toward the kinds of crops that are preserved by drying because I don’t envy the farmers who must rush their produce to market while the Perishability Clock ticks loudly in their ears.  I visualize leaving the ears on the stalk and then stringing them in the barn to dry.  This way corn can be parched, which is a bit like popping corn.  The concept intrigues me.

I am reading about corn in two books at once right now:Small-Scale-Grain-book

  1. Small-Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers by Gene Logsdon, which sings the praises of growing corn the traditional way.
  2. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of  Four Meals by Michael Pollan, which describes commercially grown corn – the kind that agribusiness feeds to pigs and to people with the same result – to fatten them up.  Even more timely – check out Pollan’s response to Obama’s televised talk on health care in yesterday’s New York Times Big Food vs. Big InsuranceOminovre's-book

Gene Logsdon’s book (second edition just issued in 2009) is a must have for a farmer wannabe like me.  It is detailed and accessible.  He calls corn America’s Amazing Maize and names it his first choice for all purposes because this sturdy plant can be harvested and planted on a few acres mostly by hand.  That is how I want to start.  Minimize the fossil fuel is one of our credos.

Logsdon says the cost of growing agribusiness corn was $600 per acre in 2008 but he slashes this cost by using his own livestock manure for fertilizer and he keeps his fuel costs down by using his own labor instead of fossil fuel where possible.  He reckons his corn costs about $90 an acre or less.

Of course the yield is lower, but it is enough to feed oneself and some others – rather than producing a commodity and throwing oneself on the mercy of a market that is influenced by so many random forces.

He says, “Farm activities that may mean ulcers for the commercial farmer can spell relaxation for the garden farmer…..Gardening and homesteading are two of the very few pastimes (I hesitate to call them ‘leisure’ activities) that can actually save you money.  In fact, compared to money spent on golf, traveling, skiing, or flying, raising your own food can be profitable even if you have a crop failure.”

Whether we like corn on the cob or not, Pollan says that most of us are made of corn and the by-products agribusiness continues to cook up.  It’s not a pretty picture.  All those miles and miles of monoculture hybrid corn grown in military precision give their high yield because of the way they are crammed together.  Bred to stand upright in cramped conditions, he likens modern corn fields to crowded city life for plants.

Corn takes over the Driftless

..Corn takes over the Driftless

All for the sake of higher yield.  And what happens as a result of  that yield?  Bad things.  Bad things for our health, our economy and our environment.

I don’t buy the argument that we need this kind of agriculture to feed the world.  If you look around, you will see that in this country, and most industrialized countries, we are not feeding the world – we are over-feeding it.  It’s like some kind of agricultural arms race – an apt analogy since the fertilizers and pesticides foisted on farmers by agribusiness grew out of the explosives and chemical weapons we mass produced during World War II.

In keeping with the release this week of the re-mastered Beatles body of work:  All we are saying is give peace a chance.  Let farms be farms – not factories.

And please, pass me another ear of locally grown corn.

6 replies

  1. Denise,

    Been following your blog for about three months now. Picked it up when I learned that I’d be moving to Madison to enter the MFA program in woodworking/furniture design. Gotta say I love your writing and finally feel compelled to chime in.

    I love locally grown corn – gotta vouch for the Indiana stuff myself. I’m fairly frustrated with our modern food system which demands the production of millions of bushels of corn, most of which are inedible (i.e. produced for feedlots or biodiesel), and never serve the community in which they’re grown.

    I love this quote “Gardening and homesteading are two of the very few pastimes (I hesitate to call them ‘leisure’ activities) that can actually save you money.” And yet I wonder if passion or lifestyle is a better word choice than pasttime?

    Really looking forward to Michael Pollan in Madison, I imagine you’ll be there? I saw Michael speak in Seattle and he was wonderful. We’ve actually taken hold of his text in the wood program and have applied it to our first department wide project. You know Will Allen and Wendell Berry are coming for the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison right?

    Would love to talk with you more about the ideas of food, sustainability, homesteading, whole tree architecture, and owning a beautiful piece of property; whenever you have the chance shoot me an e-mail. Oh also, thanks for profiling the health providers committed to wellness programs in Madison. I actually turned to your article to help pick a provider.

    Keep up the great writing, look forward to hearing from you.


  2. Nic, you have come to a great part of the world, moving to Madison. Welcome!
    Thanks for your comments.
    I’m very intrigued to see Michael Pollan interpreted in your department-wide project. Please tell me more about this.

  3. Denise,

    I’m not ready to plant my own prairie yet, but if I was I’d imagine the some music by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra would be a welcome accompaniment. Classical/Orchestral music with a strong contemporary influence and a worldwide inspiration. Its meditative yet lively music. The song Perpetuum Mobile particularly comes to mind – thats the prairie ideal right?!
    Check them out at:

    Regarding the Michael Pollan piece we’re pursing in the wood department we’ve been tasked with developing our own working algorithm or personal haiku. Pollan elegantly summarizes the complexity of the food issue with 7 words: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. In the same manner we will be developing our own elegant essentials and making a piece based on that. It was not the direction I had expected, but I’m excited nonetheless. Distilling my practice to a concise creative expression will be a clarifying and challenging task.

    I was at the Arboretum last weekend too! Its awesome.


  4. Nic, Penguin Cafe Orchestra is new to me, and I like them. I think that could be good design music.
    Since writing, I’ve been thinking of a couple of artists that could inspire prairie design — Keith Jarret, Kaki King and Tuck Andress come to mind.
    I’m glad that Darrel Morrison got me thinking about prairie and music together. Until now I had been struck by the natural sounds of the prairie — the insects and the wind vibrating all those petals and blades.
    It’s really a revelation to think about human music that captures the this kind of plant community’s unified theme of photosynthesis expressed in so many individual voices.

    Good luck with your 7-word task. I think its a very good phrase. How it will come out in wood is very intriguing. Will Pollan get to see it?

  5. Also bear in mind that much of the corn planted in the former Plains States isn’t sweet corn for eating now … its ethanol corn. Which will actually take more fossil fuels overall to produce and turn it into a fuel source than it replaces. So we could absolutely afford to put some of that acreage back into prairie!

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