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A small thing but maybe not

All summer I raved and ranted at the squirrels that were eating the corn in my crib. I was particularly concerned because the drought seemed to be making sure this year’s crop was going to be a bust. I did not look forward to buying corn at drought-inflated prices just to keep squirrels fat eating my reserve supply. Eventually, we practically encased the whole crib in chicken wire. To no avail. Once a squirrel makes up its mind to get into something it will find a way even into a lead vault.

What is most infuriating about squirrels eating corn is how wasteful they are. They do not eat the whole kernel. They do not even eat half of it. They drill into the middle of the white heart of the kernel and with their incisor-like teeth extract a snippet hardly bigger than a flake of dandruff. Sitting on top of the ears of corn, they toss that kernel away like a drunk does an empty beer can, and snatch another off the cob. The wounded kernel then slips and slides down through the piled up ears of stored corn. Sometimes the wanton, fluffy-tailed rats jerk kernels from the cob and then drop them, eating nothing out of them at all. By summer’s end, the top layer of corn in the crib was only half-shelled cobs and the bottom layer mostly half eaten or whole kernels.

I realized on close examination that the half eaten kernels were really not even a third eaten and that there was still plenty of nutritive value left. I fed them to the chickens— at least I didn’t have to shell them off the cobs as I or the hens, usually do. The chickens ate the wounded kernels as well as they ate the whole ones and kept on laying eggs. Talk about a win-win situation. The squirrels got their fill and so did the hens.

There is, of course, another worry involved. Just why do the squirrels eat only the germ at the heart of the kernel and show little interest in the endosperm, bran, or the yellow hull of the kernel? If they are interested only in the germ, which makes up hardly a fourth of the kernel, of what nutritional value is the rest? Are the squirrels telling us something?

When cows and hogs eat corn, the yellow hull usually goes right through the animal and out the other end. The same happens when humans eat sweet corn. Clever humans answer this predicament by milling the corn to make it more “digestible.” Out of curiosity, I once scooped up some hog manure and washed it through a screen. Sure enough the tiny yellow hull particles remained on the screen. They had passed through the animal’s gut as undigested as whole hulls.

Okay, all you nutritional experts out there. How correct am I when I say that at least half the gigantic, colossal crop of corn we produce yearly in this country might have little or no nutritional value. Maybe stoves burning corn to heat homes is the best way to use the stuff after all. Maybe ethanol is not such a bad idea. Or bourbon. Or how about turning to alternative grains that are far more nutritional and that can be grown, as Wes Jackson is doing on his Land Institute acres, as perennial crops not requiring annual cultivation at all?

Here’s the supreme irony. Right next to my chicken wire-encased corn crib full of squirrels, giant ragweed and lambsquarter grew up almost as high as the crib and loaded with seeds that science knows is more nutritious than corn. I didn’t see any squirrels eating the seeds, but the chickens sure did.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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