by Anne Pyburn Craig
Corn is one of humanity’s oldest known friends. It was around 9,000 years ago that people, probably in southern Mexico, first learned how to grow the plant on purpose, cultivating it to produce more larger, tastier ears on each plant.
Native Americans called her Mother Corn. In the early creation stories, as in life, she’s a nurturer: the Sioux said that after the Creator had sent a flood to douse an unruly species of giants, it was Mother Corn who came down to earth to free the regular folks from the caves where they’d been sheltered and taught them how to feed themselves. The Cherokee envisioned corn seed coming from the body of a loving crone.
|Saunderskill Farms corn. Photo by Chris Hewitt.|
“Some 2,000 years ago people who recognized the value of these soils inhabited the Rondout Valley,” writes Bruce Davenport, one of our local corn wizards, in a reflective essay on the history of Davenport Farms. “They found that they could plant seeds in clearings on these bottomlands to produce food to help sustain their people through the long winters. No longer entirely dependent on hunting and gathering their food, these people were now able to stay in one place for generations, and they called this valley home for thousands of years. Evidence of their existence can still be found in the form of arrowheads, fire pits, and bone pipes.”
Henry Hudson described a native home he visited as containing “a great quantity of maize or Indian corn, and beans of last year’s growth, and there lay near the house for the purpose of drying enough to load three ships, besides what was growing in the fields.”
Had the folks already here not taught the immigrant Europeans the ways of corn, they might well have starved to death. Corn is a generous plant; it thrives even in the challenging climate of the Northeast and keeps well. Farmers of European descent came up with their own corn culture, mostly involving corn as omen or harbinger. In some places it was said that if you missed a row planting there’d be a death in the family soon. Coming across a scattering of spilled kernels meant company was coming; if you didn’t want to see anyone you knew, you might brush away the kernels and a stranger would show up. A young woman who came across a throwback red ear amongst a harvest of yellow was due to marry before the next harvest.
Stephen King, of course, took corn from omen to ominous with his imaginative fable of its angry Children. In modern cornfields, though, He Who Walks Behind the Rows would have a danged hard time getting through them to wreak any particular havoc. Cornfields may look intriguing, but there are good reasons to confine any exploration of them to established corn mazes and U-Picks. “Tightly packed rows of stalks almost 10 feet tall create an almost full canopy overhead,” wrote Kaitlyn Stack Whitney in The Atlantic last year. “Underneath, row widths much narrower than your hips include sharp, jutting corn-leaf edges that inflict papercut-like nicks to any exposed skin as you brush past. And if you’re there during the tasseling and silking stages, your skin may break out in a rash from the falling pollen. Appropriate attire for field scientists in cornfields includes boots, long pants, and sleeves, a sturdy hat, and glasses to protect your eyes from being cut by the leaves.”
There are two main types of corn: field (maize) and sweet (what you get at the farm stand). Every year, U.S. farmers produce 332 million metric tons of maize, with 40 percent being used for corn ethanol and about another third for animal feed. The wise method the natives used—planting the “Three Sisters,” squash, beans, and corn, in close proximity to keep the soil healthy—has long since been abandoned in mass production, giving way to fertilizer-intensive methods that create a nasty nitrogen imbalance in some places. Eighty-five percent of the corn grown in the United States today is genetically modified. According to the Environmental Working Group, “In contrast to field corn, only a small amount of GE sweet corn can be found on the U.S. market. Most sweet corn has not been genetically engineered.”
The ecological damage wrought by corn, environmental advocates agree, is driven largely by subsidized ethanol production. And corn is turned into a lot of other non-foods as well. The Corn Refiners Association, a pack of heavyweights including Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, converts 1.5 billion bushels into six categories of corn based products: sweeteners, oils, starch, ethanol, animal feed, and bio-products. Corn is ubiquitous, used in soft drinks, plastics, fabric and adhesives: “jams, jellies, sauces, marinades, cereals, condiments, canned fruits and vegetables, baked goods, meat products like bologna and hot dogs, yogurts, snack items, cough drops, antibiotics, intravenous solutions, toothpaste, paper, cosmetics and soap to name a few,” all contain corn.
The CRA is currently locked in legal strife with the Sugar Association over the latter’s attempts to “vilify” high fructose corn syrup, which the corn folks assert is no worse for us than refined sugar, It’s interesting to contemplate how many issues could be addressed by growing and using environmentally friendly hemp crops instead of some of that corn.
Nutritionally, we’d all be better off eating blue, red, or multicolored corn. These “Indian corn” varieties, mostly used for decoration these days, contain anthocyanins, bioflavonoid phytochemicals that produce their rich coloration and help protect the human body from a host of enzymatic, hormonal, inflammatory and immune system woes. You can still get the benefit of colorful corn by grinding it into homemade hominy or grits in a sturdy blender or a coffee grinder, and the red variety is said to make exceptionally tasty popcorn.
Golden sweet corn, however, is still a whole grain rich in good stuff: fiber, protein, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, and folic acid. Just beware of the whitest varieties; they come to us courtesy of a mayor and “gentleman farmer” from New Haven, Connecticut, who in the late 19th century bragged that he had bred out of sweet corn “the disadvantage of being yellow”—and with it, most of the betacarotene. (There’s a parable in there somewhere.)
During the peak era of Rondout Valley corn production, Gill Farms harvested over a million dozen ears a year from 1,300 acres, and the Davenports had 1,000 acres in corn production. The New York Times came to Hurley and interviewed Jack and Charlotte Gill on their techniques and on the fine art of corn purchase and transportation (keep it wet and cold, folks.) “Every day at least one or two trailer trucks, each carrying crates with 45,000 ice-covered ears of corn, leaves Hurley’s fields for market. On a good day, Mr. Gill can get the corn from the stalk to the truck in 40 minutes,” marveled the Times reporter.
“At that time there were nearly 6,000 acres in the Rondout Valley planted in sweet corn, and ten large sweet corn operations shipping its products countrywide,” reminisces Davenport of the peak production years. Today, the picture has changed significantly; Davenport Farms keeps just 50 acres in sweet corn production; and the Farm Hub, the former Gill property, has shifted focus to other grains and cover crops, although grain corn is still being grown along 209, part of an experiment in organic feed production.
The corn maze at Saunderskill Farms in Accord beckons.
Photo by Chris Hewitt.
According to the USDA, New York is still a standout in sweet corn production, the fourth-largest producer nationwide; farmers marketed $72.6 million in fresh market sweet corn last year, with the Rondout and Wallkill Valleys receiving much of the credit. And throughout the Hudson Valley, dozens of right-sized sweet corn operations mean that you’re never far from a fresh-picked ear in season. As almost everyone knows, fresh is best—corn’s sugars start converting to starches the minute it’s picked.
Nothing beats an ear of sweet corn, be it boiled or roasted, fresh from the farm stand—unless you grow your own and can have the water boiling or the grill hot before the corn leaves the stalk. Corn is a hardy crop, and one that most gardeners can manage. Local gardening wizard Lee Reich is a fan of the Golden Bantam variety, calling it “a relatively pest-free vegetable that warrants space in any garden.”
“I grow corn in hills (clusters) of three plants each with two feet between hills in the row and two rows of hills down each three-foot-wide bed” Reich writes in his blog. “With each stalk yielding one to two ears, I reap thirty to sixty ears for each ten feet of bed! That’s a lot of ears, and it’s in space in which I sow early lettuce or spinach before planting the corn, and late turnips or, again, lettuce, spinach, arugula, or other cool season vegetables to follow the corn harvest.”
That’s something to think about for next spring. Meanwhile, if you don’t want to wait till next year to experience corn grown close to home, you can probably still grab some at a farm stand, and the folks at Hudson Valley Harvest in Ulster offer frozen local corn all winter long.
It’s all part of the splendid corn-ucopia of local agriculture.
CORN MAZE WHERE-TO
There is no more classic way to spend an autumn afternoon than getting lost in the endless rows of a corn maze, with the blue sky overhead and the cool breeze ruffling your windbreaker. Here’s a list of local maize mazes for your enjoyment:
DuBois Farms: Farm Market, café, and bakery; weekend barbeques; U-Pick apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, and pumpkins; expanded 2-acre corn maze; tractor-pulled wagon rides; contests with prizes; visits with farm animals, pony rides, and more. duboisfarms.com. 845-795-4037. 209 Perkinsville Road, Highland, NY 12528. Open daily 10:00am -5:00pm.
Hurds Family Farm: U-Pick apples and pumpkins, fall festival, train rides, corn maze, haybale maze, tractor-pulled hay rides, pumpkin weigh-off, gift shop, snacks and refreshment stand, restrooms, picnic area, bonfires, petting zoo, farm animals. hurdsfamilyfarm.com. 845-883-7825. 2187 Route 32, Modena, NY 12548. Open daily, 9am-5pm for U-Pick and Dutch Barn Market; activities open 10am-4pm.
Jenkins & Lueken Orchards: Apples, pumpkins, pumpkin patch-pick in the field, corn maze, fresh produce, tractor-pulled hay rides, raspberries, blackberries. 69 Yankee Folley Road (off Rt. 299) New Paltz, NY 12561. 845-255-0999. jlorchards.com. Open weekdays, 9am-6pm; weekends, 9am-7pm.
Kelder’s Farm: U-pick pumpkin patch, apples, concord grapes, sweet corn, red raspberries, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, beans, peppers, onions, eggplant, squash, and u-cut flowers. Corn maze, tractor-pulled hay rides, hay bale maze, fresh produce, farm stand and gift shop, picnic area, tractor-pulled hay rides, petting zoo. 5755 Route 209 , Kerhonkson, NY 12404. 845-626-7137. kelderfarm.com. Open daily, 10am-6pm.
Prospect Hill Orchards: U-pick apples, pears, and pumpkin patch; corn makes, snacks and refreshment stand; tractor-pulled hay rides; corn maze; Appleseed Cider Festival (Columbus Weekend). Payment: Cash, only. 845-795-2383. prospecthillorchards.com. 40 Clark’s Lane, Milton, NY 12547. Open weekends, 9am-4pm.
Saunderskill Farms: U-pick apples, raspberries, and pumpkins; free corn maze; tractor-drawn hayrides daily and horse-drawn hayrides on weekends, Hudson Valley Draft Horse Association Fall Harvest Day (October 3). 5100 Route 209, Accord, NY. 845-626-7103. saunderskill.com. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-7pm.
Wallkill View Farm Market: U-Pick Pumpkins, free weekend hayrides, family picnic area, Corn Maze, mums. 845-255-8050. wallkillviewfarmmarket.com. 15 Route 299 West, New Paltz, NY 12561. Open weekends, 9:00am-6:30pm.
Barton Orchards: U-pick apples and pumpkins; free hayrides; concessions stands, a food/grocers market; mums; petting zoo, a live band on the weekends; haunted house; corn maze; field of screams. 63 Apple Tree Lane, Poughguag, NY, 12570. 845-227-2306. Open Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm; weekends, 9am-6pm.
Hahn Farm: Corn maze, hayrides, hay maze, pumpkin patch, gift shop, farm stand, picnic area, pony rides, petting zoo. Cash only. 845-266-5042. hahnfarm.com. 697 Salt Point Turnpike, Salt Point, NY 12578. Farmstand open weekdays 9:30am-6pm; farm open for events on weekends 11am-5pm.
Kesicke Farm: Farmstand, U-pick pumpkin patch, corn maze, hay bale maze, horse-drawn hay rides, tractor-pulled hay rides, wagon rides, picnic area, petting zoo, farm fresh goodies (doughnuts, grass fed meat, eggs). 845-590-9642. kesickefarm.com. 221 Middle Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572. Open weekends, 10am-6pm.