Corn has stood the test of time
Friday, September 6, 2013
Corn, a staple food and crop in America, has a much more complicated history than most would think.
Though its exact origins are unknown, it has been speculated by researchers that it began in Mexico some 7,000 years ago.
It all began with a plant known as teosinte, which looked more like a tall grass than the corn we all know and enjoy today. But, after centuries of hybridization and careful cultivation, corn now has thousands of uses derived from thousands of sub-variations branching off the original plant.
Not only a tasty crop but a useful one, corn is grown around the world. It can be found in a broad range of products, from food to fuel, some more surprising than others.
In England, “corn” often refers to wheat, but in Scotland, it may mean oats. In the Americas, corn is often called maize, referring to the crop grown on tall stalks starting in the spring and continuing through the summer.
The most common type grown in the United States is known as dent corn, and is used mostly for animal feed (though it also can be found in products such as chips and taco shells). It gets its name from a small dent in the middle of each kernel, and is a cross of flint corn and flour corn.
Unlike the sweet corn that we all like to eat directly off the cob, dent corn has a hard outside that must be softened up for processing by soaking or grinding.
Another type commonly seen in the United States is flint corn, which is also often called Indian corn. It is extremely hard, but holds moisture better and is easier to grow in extreme climates. Readers may be familiar with this type of corn from pictures at Thanksgiving, where, with its different colored kernels, it finds use as a decorative plant. And who isn’t familiar with popcorn, a sub-variety of flint corn, with even higher moisture content that causes it to explode when exposed to heat?
There is nothing like fresh corn, picked early in the morning and eaten the same day.
The corn you find at local farm stands is called sweet corn, because its sugar doesn’t convert to starch as much as in other types. Most farms in Greater Nashua offer many different varieties of sweet corn, and none of the varieties that you know and love would be possible were it not for the special care provided by local farmers.
Corn needs careful cultivation to grow, with growing periods ranging from 60 to 90 days depending on the type of corn and the weather. With this long cultivation come lots of problems arising from unpredictable weather and pests.
This season has been exceptionally wet, according to Trevor Hardy from Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis. The accumulative rainfall from spring though June was above average, which in addition to providing more moisture than necessary, washed away needed fertilizer. This has affected the corn’s rate of growth, so that the corn at our local farms is about a week behind its usual growing time. This meant that when corn initially hit the market this summer, the kernels were slightly smaller, although just as sweet.
A problem that farmers always experience is pests, such as bugs and worms. Farms deal with these pests through a practice known as integrated pest management.
Traps are set in the fields to capture samples of any pests that may be present, which allows the farmers to determine which areas of the corn are infected and by which types of pests. Then, if necessary, only the infected areas are judicially sprayed using insecticides, which are specific to the type of pest which is present.
A new “pest” has started to take its toll in recent years: not your usual bug or worm, but birds.
Birds that migrate during the summer can land on corn and eat away at the top of the husk. When this happens, the corn is not harvestable to farmers and must be left in the field.
For the last three years, birds have become an increasing problem for local farmers mainly because the government stopped controlling certain populations of these migratory birds.
Yet, in spite of all these problems – weather, bugs and birds – local corn is just starting to peak. White, butter and sugar, and vision are among the varieties currently available, and they are just as tasty and sweet as ever. Be sure to stop by your local farm stand and get yours before summer is over.
This article was written by Lauria Patz, and edited by Dan Harmon of the Hollis Agricultural Commission. To learn more about the Commission, which promotes local agriculture, go to www.hollisag.org.