The Local Food Report: organic corn

Have you noticed how tough it is to find organic corn locally? Most farmers' at the markets around here bring their corn in from off-Cape, and most of it is labeled "conventional," i.e. grown with pesticides. (That word usage has always seemed a bit funny to me, as if pesticides have been the norm for hundreds of years, but that's an aside. Anyway.)

So the other day when I noticed Anna Henning of Redberry Farm in Eastham selling organic sweet corn at the market in Orleans, I got excited. I asked her how she'd done it, and here's what she told me:

1. She chose an early corn variety. The main reason people have so much trouble growing organic corn is because it gets invaded by corn ear worms (also known as tomato fruit worms when they eat big holes in your tomatoes). The later on in the season it gets, the bigger and more mature the corn ear worms get, so it's best to plant a corn variety that can be harvested in mid to late July.

2. She used the three sisters' planting method. You've probably heard of this—it's a Native American thing. Basically, first you plant corn seeds in the middle of a raised flat mound. Once the corn sprouts to about 15 inches high, you plant beans and squash around it. The corn acts as a pole for the beans, the beans in turn help stabilize the corn, and the squash acts as a sort of live mulch, keeping the soil moist and shaded and also helping fend off predators with its prickly stems. Nutritionally, the beans add nitrogen back to the soil, which is good for the corn and squash plants.

3. She planted it in a spot with plenty of sunlight and gave it plenty of water. Anna thinks that a lot of times when people don't do well with corn, it's because they planted it in a spot that's too shady.

4. She kept an eye out for corn ear worms. This is the hardest thing for most people. Anna kept watch over her corn, particularly when the leaf whorls were starting to come up, because the worms tend to get in through the top of the ears and then eat their way down. Unchecked, they'll eat the entire plant. So when the leaf whorls were forming Anna put a few drops of mineral oil into the top of each ear, which she says helped deter the worms. Then she kept checking for worms, and on any ears that had worms, she cut the tops off. This doesn't really hurt the plant, she says, although it doesn't look great.

And that's it! She had a lot of trouble with germination, she said, but otherwise success was mostly about paying attention. Of the 20 rows she planted, only about 5 came up, so next year she's going to plant a lot more.

I was lucky enough to buy ten ears from her the one day she had her crop for sale, and they were good. We ate most of them as snacks, just husked and raw and straight off the cob, but in case you're looking for sweet corn inspiration, here are some of my favorite recipes:



Chrissie @ Little House on the Suburban Prairie said...

Interesting post! We may have to try to grow corn next year.

Anne said...

Another reason for the "conventional" label is because of GMO. Most corn crops in the last few years are GMO strains (nationally.. over 90% of corn planted is GMO.) Corn is wind pollinated, and the pollen can travel up to 2 miles or more on a light breeze.

So even if you plant a non-gmo type, and follow organic standards for growing, it doesn't mean your corn is actually organic. Organic then becomes very hard. You need to then incorporate means to prevent cross contamination (distance, isolation, barriers, flowering timing).. right on up to bagging the ears if needed.

Because we eat the "seeds" of corn.. aka the kernels.. any cross contamination with gmo types makes that crop you are growing.. a gmo. (the gmo genetics are dominant. period.)

Fun, eh? It's not easy.. and also why we can't grow organic corn at all on our farms. The neighboring farms are all GMO's. The USDA as well requires farmers to register their crops (how many acres planted of what type.. etc.)

3 sisters method.. worked great back when the N.A. planted in several small gardens dispersed over an area, but they also used different strains. So trying that method in the backyard garden often isn't as effective as one would think.

If you plant corn, plant in blocks. The bigger the area, the better. Corn puts out pollen (several million each day per plant over roughly 2 weeks) and to get good filled out cobs.. they need to be well pollinated or else you get blank spots, missing kernels in the cob. Timing is as well key. Corn doesn't like cold soil. The kernels will rot if planted too early, especially in wet soil. It is a heavy feeder, amend the soil very well with finished compost.

Corn for fresh eating is harvested immature.. aka the "milk stage". There are several different types to choose from depending on what you are intending to use them for. Several of the dent, flint, and flour types are not too bad for eating fresh (immature) too. (granted.. not like the super sweet types.. but the others have more of a "corn" flavor.)

Good luck with your corn!

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Anna Henning said...

We <3 you and your support Elspeth! Your shows do so much to raise awareness and get folks interested in local food, both of which are great blessings here on Cape. Keep up the good work, we at Redberry Farm appreciate you

Elspeth said...

thank you anne for all the info! i have never tried growing corn but anna may have inspired me to attempt it next year, and now i have plenty of tips.

and anna, thank YOU! blueberries, corn...need i say more?

all the best,

Alexandra said...

Thanks for this post. I have not eaten corn for two years, in protest for GMOs infiltrating corn fields. I have bought organic blueberries from Anne at the Wellfleet farmers' market and they were yummy. I look forward to getting some from her this week, if any is left! Thanks, also, for mentioning the issue of pesticides. It is so important to health, especially to pregnant women, so I'm really glad you are vigilant on this, Elspeth.


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