an heirloom corn trial at Moontree

Perhaps our grand societal experiment in social media will eventually prove to be a huge waste of time, a determinant to our mental health and spiritual satisfaction, and the death blow to civic discourse and democracy, but occasionally it can be quite useful!

I have just enough Spanish fluency to be dangerous (read: to sound like a babbling 3-year-old), and I saw a Spanish-language posting on Facebook looking to recruit folks to plant some heritage/heirloom Mexican corn varieties, for the purpose of amplifying the seed stock.

Corn is an amazing plant. It is thought to have originated from a Mexican/Central American grass named teosinte. Maize (as it’s called outside of U.S., and maíz in Spanish) has been cultivated (domesticated) by humans over the last 9,000 years or so. Through annual cycles of trial and error, humans help create hundreds of varieties of this important grain, suitable for many purposes, soils, and climates. “Corn was ground and made into flour, cornmeal, tortillas, cornbread, hominy, grits, and polenta. They grew flint, dent, and flour corn varieties for these purposes and some of these are still available today” (Growing Heirloom Corn).

I’m pretty sure you have to shuck a minimum of 12 ears of corn per summer or you officially lose your Indiana residency. Bonus Hoosier points if you get a laundry basket full.

Indigenous Americans, at least in the Midwest, appeared to have practiced something like slash-and-burn corn cultivation, where nutrient-rich clearings grew corn for a few years. Without synthetic fertilizers, the fields had to be temporarily abandoned for a number of years or cycled to other crop. Because human populations were much lower than today, this extensive agriculture was not a threat to biodiversity at large In fact, this periodic disturbance, combined with fire and grazing animals, gave rise to a diversity of habitat types across the landscape and thus a diversity of organisms.

You can read more about heirloom corns here. Its history and diversity is not unlike other domesticated crops. When I lived in Bolivia I learned that the Andean people had over 500 varieties of potatoes in circulation.

With the continued trend of commercialization and simplification of our food system (and commercial ownership of the underlying genetics), we are losing the genetic diversity not just of wild species, but also of our cultivated varieties of food.

Thinking more holistically, each generation in the post-industrial West has also become more disconnected from food diversity and food production systems. So I thought a small foray into this project would be well worth the effort. A small bet, as we like to say.

I connected with a seed saver in the Michiana area who had several samples of various heirloom corns. He graciously offered to ship me two lots for seed amplification. We are growing these not for food (this year), but to increase the seed source and try to recruit new people to participate in maintaining this genetic diversity. Corn is a cultural as much as a genetic resource, and has to be maintained over time.

I planted the first block of ~200 seeds the other week. It is called Tabilla de Ocho and is from the Sinaloa region of Mexico. There are some pretty substantial differences in climate, soils, and day-length between here and there, so it’s a bit of a gamble. But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Now, the cultural connection I will admit is a bit of a stretch. I don’t have indigenous or Mexican heritage myself. Eventually, I’d like to find a way to connect this project (if it turns into a project) to our neighbors of Mexican heritage. The most recent round of immigration into Marshall County includes Mexican families who came for agricultural work. Most of these jobs, I believe, are gone and have been replaced with factory and service work. I’m curious to see if there is interest.

I invited Sister Yolanda (a PHJC who is visiting from the Mexican community of Sisters) to join me to sembrar. As we planted, she told me about her experience planting and tending corn as a little girl.

Before long, we were done. We covered the seeds in a layer of thick compost.

A week later I caught another break in the weather to plant the 2nd set of corn, Bear Island Chippewa, which is an Ojibwe variety from the Great Lakes region. Without knowing much else, I expect that it will do better than the Sinaloan corn, being that it is adapted to this region. The seeds were a beautiful rainbow of colors.

These are open-pollinated varieties, meaning that if they happen to tassel (pollinate) at the same time, I could get cross-contaminated seed. But… taking an optimist’s viewpoint, I could just be creating a brand new variety of seed. (These aren’t the very last lots of these varieties, otherwise this would be a much more controlled environment).

After 7 days, the first planting of Tabilla de Ocho had already sprouted. And the first weed seedling emerges between the rows, so I had to take care of those too.

Sitting back and enjoying the (small) fruits of my labor for a brief second, my thoughts of course turned to the rest of the growing season… I had just committed myself (and a couple other co-workers) to regular weeding, emergency watering, and fertilization (corn is a very nitrogen-hungry crop). That’s all if the raccoons and deer don’t destroy everything in a single night’s raid.

I suppose that’s kind of the point. Corn is a human invention, a species that has been domesticated to suit our purposes. It requires our intervention, discernment, attention, and resources.

But considering that we (Westerners) have plowed, drained, and chemically treated 99% of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in pursuit of this grain… perhaps it is in the fact the corn that has domesticated us!


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