Not deferential enough: Green is the color of the sparkling corn

Posted Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Green is the color of the sparkling corn

by Gina Hamilton

In Illinois summers, once we were finally released from school, there were plenty of highways and byways that we could ride, including the rather intense trip from our home in the little town of Downers Grove to my grandmother's home in Dixon. By car the trip took two hours, past some of the nicest farmland you ever want to see. By bike, it would take me two days, and I would spend the night at the Northern Illinois University campus, where older friends were taking summer courses.

I had a rather nice black Raleigh bicycle, only five speeds, but in a state that is corn-cake flat, what more do you really need?

One of the things you notice amid the silence of farmland in the Midwest is that you can Hear The Corn Growing. Most people think this is a myth, but it is not. Corn growing sounds like rustling, popping and squeaking, and it would be hard to tell in a brisk wind, but on a very still day, you can indeed hear it. Corn grows about an inch a day during prime growing season, and people who live near cornfields or, in my case, took a lunch break or a water-bottle break near a cornfield are treated to this unusual spectacle of plant life. 

I remember singing an old Donovan song while riding down the road, between the village of Big Rock and the slightly bigger town of Watertown, where I would stop for a soda (oh, excuse me, POP) and a brief rest in the little downtown park. The song, "Yellow is the Color of My True Love's Hair," was an obvious reference to an old folk melody in which the True Love was a brunette, but one of the lines, and the one that would induce me to sing it, was about the corn. "Green is the color of the sparkling corn, in the morning, when we rise..."

If you rode fast enough, you could watch the cornfield closest to you apparently sweep along like a broom, while the perspective of the rows makes the cornfield farthest away look like the handle of the broom. 

All along the roads were the seed companies' signs, so farmers could decide for themselves who's got the best seed and purchase next year's accordingly.

Most of this corn was field corn, rather than sweet corn. It was used for chicken feed and other animal feeds; it was also used to make corn oil. It was hard and pebbly, dried easily, and could be stored in one of the thousands of silos or grain elevators for winter feed or until it was sold to Crisco or what have you.

What no one knew then, and hardly anyone knows now, is how much corn plays a role in our day-to-day life. It's very difficult to buy a grocery product on store shelves that doesn't have some kind of corn in it. And the corn products have become a lot more dangerous. There aren't 50 seed companies competing for farmers' seed money now, there is perhaps one, or two at the most, except for the few small organic farms — and there aren't too many organic corn farms in Illinois.

The biggest seed giant is, of course, Monsanto, which has spent a fortune developing corn seed that is genetically modified, and contains a bacterium that is often used in the soil in organic farming, called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, or short. In theory, rootworms ingest Bt corn roots and the protein is fatal. However, recent reports indicate that pesticide-resistant rootworms are showing up weeks earlier and more voraciously than ever. But whether the protein ends up working or not, sweet corn is appearing on supermarket shelves, unidentified, that contains this protein, and some rat studies showed that the modified corn caused significant problems. Monsanto, naturally, denies that the seed is problematic.

But the biggest threat to the sparkling corn this year isn't Monsanto, or Bt, or even the rootworms that are causing such havoc out west. The biggest threat is that corn, which is a thirsty plant for a grass, isn't getting enough to drink.

I haven't been to Illinois this year, but I am told by relatives that the corn crops are failing this summer, just withering up in the fields, not even setting ears. Most accept that this is a side effect of global climate change. It may soon not be possible to grow corn where we have historically grown it. The sparkling corn, and wheat, and maybe soybeans will shift to Canada; different crops will be raised in what was once America's breadbasket. Or the land may revert to pasture and grazing like much of the dry lands between the Missouri and the California border.

And the problem is, corn is in everything these days. Forget ethanol, forget feed corn (let 'em graze on grass this year), forget pet food (feed them real food for a change or switch to a pet food that is corn-free). Human food contains incredible amounts of corn too, from high fructose corn sweetener that is seemingly in everything we buy, to cornmeal and corn starch that is in every prepared food from pudding to mayonnaise to gravy to ice cream to cookies.

There are alternatives, of course, and manufacturers are scrambling to replace some of the most expensive ingredients with other things ... sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, for instance. 

The corn at Turning Tide Cottage is about shoulder high now, but we may get about a dozen ears at the most. Most organic farms and gardens don't grow much corn; it takes up too much space and it requires too much water. It makes a fabulous bean pole, though, and the beans will fix the nitrogen the corn needs, if you grow it together. And if you grow squash in the same hill, the squash will keep the soil from blowing and help keep it moist. But of course the large-scale factory farms across the Midwest don't grow corn like this. You can smell the fertilizer as you ride along; its saltpeter tang burns your nose. 

And the part they're not discussing yet is what will happen to all that nitrogen-rich fertilizer when it is not taken up by the dessicated plants, but blows into water systems across the Midwest and ultimately into the Mississippi River, where it will wash down into the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, algae will bloom, then die, and in the decomposition process, will rob the water of oxygen, killing fish, shellfish, and other organisms as it does, leaving a dead zone behind. Perhaps temporarily, perhaps not. 

It's time for everyone to consider what it is we are doing to our land, our water, and our atmosphere, in order to make just a few large corporations incredibly rich. Corn may be a casualty of the changes that will be necessary as we move to a sustainable harvest in the age of global warming, and the very way we as a nation eat may also have to change. 

Hopefully for the better.

blog comments powered by Disqus