With corn prices triple the historical levels, growing corn for your own table use looks more sensible than ever, especially when it is not easy to find organic corn to buy. Riffle through cookbooks and you might be amazed at how many ways corn can be used to make succulent foods. We treasure an old cookbook (1951) Whole Grain Cookery, by Stella Standard (forward by Pearl Buck !!!) which has 63 recipes for cooked or baked corn and cornmeal, from all manner of breads, puddings, soups, dodgers, johnnycakes, hoecakes, mushes, corn pones, pancakes, and various dishes from hominy. And this cookbook doesn’t even get into the many dishes that can be made with sweet corn, fresh, canned or frozen.

Our country, actually our whole hemisphere, grew up on corn, or maize as it is more correct to call it. There are still varieties around that came from ancient Aztec sources. Many early settlers would have literally starved to death without the maize that the native Americans showed them how to grow and cook. It is because of their size that ears of corn is so eminently practical for the gardener and homesteader. You can husk out by hand an acre or two of corn much easier than trying to thresh out smaller grains like wheat. Farmers used to husk as much as ten acres a season, taking all winter to do it if necessary. You can plant a half acre of corn with a low-cost garden planter in a day, and several acres in a planting season.

Because of the cold, wet spring this year, it was nip and tuck getting corn planted in the cornbelt. Corn farmers were almost frantic as the rain pelted down and the the ideal planting season— late April to mid-May— slipped by with less than half the crop in the ground. Some of what did get planted early, including some of mine, rotted in the ground rather than sprouted and had to be replanted.

We grow corn organically, which means that the ground must be prepared by working the soil to a fine seed bed first. (Even the commercial growers who use no-till planters and herbicides, are learning, or rather re-learning, that it is better to work up a find seed bed first.) So we plow under green manure (strips in one of our hay plots), then disk it, then go over it with a garden tiller since we grow only about a half acre’s worth. We would be better off to use just one implement, a heavy, tractor-mounted tiller, to do all three operations. (Plowing leaves a dead furrow on one side of every strip that is difficult to fill and level with the disk.) But that would be one more expense which we have so far been able to avoid.

I like to plant my corn in strips because outside rows in a corn field almost always yield higher than inside rows in a solid plot of corn. With strips there are more outside rows. Also, the sunlight can filter through the strips better too, to encourage clovers and small grains that I might inter-seed in the standing corn later. Also again, on sloping land, strips control erosion much better than a solid field of cultivated soil.

Because of the wet weather, farmers (including me) felt almost forced to work the ground when it was still a little too wet, a big mistake. Even after disking, this meant dealing with hard little clods when the soil did dry out. Locally there was a run on cultipackers, a clod-crushing implement not often used any more. Fortunately I have one which I use every year on the field corn because planting with my light, makeshift two-row garden planter (see photo above), the corn seeds do not get pressed into the soil tight enough for good germination. This year, the cultipacker (see photo at top) also crushed those troublesome little clods into a passably nice seed bed. If you connect two garden planters like I did, be sure to allow for enough room between the rows for your tiller or cultivator when weeding

We grow open-pollinated field corn even though it yields less than hybrids, because, as the neighbors say, I am contrary. That is not really the reason but enters into it I suppose. First of all o-p corn makes bigger ears on average than hybrid. It is faster to husk out one foot-long ear than two six inch ears. Also, we think, and so do other contrary neighbors who have purchased our corn for their own table use, that it tastes better than hybrid corn. We think our Reid’s Yellow Dent is superior to other open-pollinated varieties that we have tested. Ours is not as hard (easier to chew), which makes it better to feed as whole kernels to livestock and chickens too. The raccoons and the deer think ours tastes better too, unfortunately. They often bypass the neighbors’ hybrids for our corn.

There is almost an unlimited number of sweet corn and popcorn varieties from ancient to advanced. The new hybrid, high sucrose varieties are tastier to us, but if you want old, open-pollinated varieties, you can still get them from most of the mail order seed companies. You can grind meal out of sweet corn (a little too gummy we think) and even popcorn. Don’t forget parched corn from white or yellow sweetcorn. No doubt the many old corn varieties, red, white and blue, now used mainly for decoration, could also make meal or parched corn.

We figure that three fourths of an acre, half field corn and half garden corns, with field corn yielding a hundred bushels per acre (twice that is not uncommon, in fact three times that is possible), produces enough grain for all the table uses we enjoy, plus all the grain a cow and calf, 30 chickens, and a pig or two needs in a year, especially with some good pasture for the animals to free range. (We don’t feed our lambs any grain but they eat the corn fodder.) You will have to experiment to find out what your land is capable of.

This year, with corn bouncing around six dollars a bushel, you might consider growing some for a cash crop. If you have a couple of acres not in use otherwise and use organic methods that avoid the current extremely high cost of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, you could get a 150 bushels per acre of hybrid corn easily enough. That could mean $900 for spare time work, mostly profit not counting your labor. Something your high schoolers might ponder as they try to save money for college…. or to pay their gas bills.
See also Gene’s Sweet Corn From The Garden – In December
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Photos Credit: Carol Logsdon
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