Corn and Isolation
Earlier this summer we harvested a block of sweet corn. I also grew two small experimental plantings of Indian corn; one an heirloom dent corn with pastel, multicolored kernels called “Earth Tones Dent,” the other a green seeded variety called “Oaxacan Green Dent.” Corn is pollinated by the wind, so in order to keep the three different kinds of corn from crossing it was important to isolate each variety. There are two simple ways to isolate corn; geographically and chronologically.
Corn is grass. The tassels that stick out of the top of a corn plant are male flowers that catch the wind and let it carry the pollen. The silky threads that protrude from a developing corn ears lower on the stalk are the parts of female flower that capture the pollen and conduct the grains to the ovaries so that they can become inseminated and develop into the corn seeds. When you shuck corn and find a cob only sparsely populated with kernels, you know that there was unsatisfactory pollination. To aid corn in achieving good pollination it is best to plant the crop in a block, so that the silks emerge from the ear to find themselves practically marinated in a cloud of pollen no matter which way the wind blows. A single row of corn, planted like a dam against a strong wind, might have all the pollen blown away from the top of its stalk to parts unknown, so that the female ears remain completely unfertilized and barren. I was careful to plant our corn crop in wide blocks so that there was a chance for good pollination.
There are many kinds of corn, including pop corn, flint corn, dent corn, sweet corn, hybridized sweet corn, hybridized super sweet corn, and genetically modified industrial corns, or GMO corns, some of which carry insecticidal genes. All corn varieties are as closely related as you and I and can cross on a whim, so to protect the genetic integrity of the varieties, and to preserve the specific characteristics and flavors of each distinct kind of corn it is necessary to guard against pollen drift. Sweet corn can lose its sugar and get chewy if it is cross pollinated with other varieties. The flour qualities of heirloom Indian corns could be compromised if crossed with sweet or super sweet varieties, and no organic farmer can tolerate their crop being contaminated with GMOs.
Mariquita Farm is located in the Bolsa District of San Benito County, along Pacheco Creek between Gilroy and Hollister and we get a good breeze every afternoon. From our fields looking south and west you can see the pass between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Anzar Hills called the Chittenden Gap. Behind the farm and to the north and east lies the Pacheco Pass and the San Joaquin Valley beyond. Every afternoon the heat of the San Joaquin Valley acts to pull cool, moist air off the Monterey Bay. The breeze passes through the Chittenden Gap and over the Pacheco pass. This pattern is as predictable as the sun coming up. If you could look down on our farm when the corn is in flower and if you were sharp-eyed enough to see the pollen in the breeze you’d see a plume of corn pollen drifting on the breeze from my fields away towards Los Banos. To protect the flavor of my sweet corn I planted it upwind from my Indian corn. I had to plant my Indian dent corn downwind from the sweet corn, but to protect its genetic integrity I planted it well to the west, out of the main flow of the wind, and I also planted it behind an Elderberry hedge which acted as a wind break. The Oaxacan Green Dent corn I planted at my house in Corralitos, thirty-five miles away.
It’s never possible to be absolutely certain about where the wind will blow, so I also isolated the Indian corn from the sweet corn chronologically. The bicolor sweet corn variety I used takes an average of 75 days of growth until it flowers. Indian corn takes around 100 days to flower, so even though I planted both varieties on the same day they weren’t in flower at the same time, so there wasn’t much danger of them crossing. The Oaxacan Green corn takes about 95 days to flower, but since it wasn’t in the same county as my other corn it hardly matters, unless of course my crop is down wind from someone else’s corn patch, which raises a series of interesting ethical questions.
If I don’t want to grow corn that has been genetically modified, and my customers don’t want to eat corn that has been genetically modified, but my neighbor is up wind and chooses to grow a GMO corn, what rights do I as a farmer (or you as a consumer) have to keep our crop clean from genetic contamination?
If my neighbor is downwind and concerned that his GMO corn (or regular sweet corn, for that matter) will be contaminated by my crop of sweet corn or Indian corn, what right does he have to keep me from growing what I want to grow?
If one variety of sweet corn crosses with another variety the result could be a loss of quality; the randomly hybridized kernels may not be very sweet, or they could be chewy and fibrous. An affected grower could lose money for a season. But if a GMO corn crosses with an open pollinated, non-GMO variety the consequence might easily be that a new gene is introduced into an otherwise heirloom variety, compromising its purity. This could fall very hard for subsistence farmers that save their own seed. How can they know that the genetics of the seed they’ve saved has been compromised? Over time, we might actually lose our open pollinated, heirloom varieties if they’re allowed to evolve under the influence of randomly introduced, foreign genes– and not just genes foreign to the plants of the area, but perhaps even genes foreign to the Plant Kingdom. When this happens, who is responsible for the loss of a crop species? The Taliban blew the heads off the antique Buddha statues in the Bamyan Valley of Afghanistan with artillery and were widely excoriated in the press as ignorant vandals and terrorist extremists. But if genetically modified corn varieties are allowed to compromise the genetic integrity of the open pollinated Indian corns will anyone hold the scientists and drug companies accountable for vandalizing cultural achievements? How can subsistence farmers afford to fight for their “genetic” rights in the courts against the international drug companies that are seeking to patent the gene pool?
And who can really “own” genetics, anyway? The drug companies that are working with corn varieties and improving them aren’t starting from scratch; they’re building on a foundation of genetic work carried out by previous cultures and generations. If modern industrial varieties of corn make extinct the ancient varieties that are the foundation of agronomy, aren’t we losing as much as we gain? And how can the people who developed and maintained the original corn varieties receive compensation for their work and their loss? Custer had a lot of hubris to think that we had the right to exterminate the Indians and claim their land— a fatal hubris, because he got caught with his pants down and died for our sins. But the hubris before nature of these drug companies that blandly claim to own the blueprints for life make Custer look like Cultural Diversity Sensitivity Seminar Training coach. Call me a wooly-bearded, superstitious old hippie, but I think the Karma Kops are going to pull this planet over to the side of the ecliptic and give us a ticket for reckless driving.
Think about it. Butterflies are like rainbows come to life. Some GMO corns have been developed that carry the BT gene, so that the larval forms of Lepidoptera are killed when they try to feed on the corn. This is very convenient for the companies that hold the patents, and arguably (very arguably!) for consumers who supposedly pay lower prices for the corn syrup in their processed foods because of these “advances.” But what happens to the matrix of life beyond the corn patch if populations of moths and butterflies decline or fail because of the ubiquity of insecticidal GMO corn? They are pollinators.Who pays for the biological consequences of ripping the fabric of life into shreds? We all do.
And is there even really a price to environmental balance? I respect the scientific method, but scientists are human too. When Dr. Labcoat chooses to answer consumers’ concerns about the introduction of GMO material into the biosphere with a “Hey, baby! Don’t sweat it, I’ve got everything under control” routine, I instinctively cross myself and reach for my wallet. Were the geniuses at Monsanto ever children? Didn’t they watch Mickey Mouse play the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia? Talk about isolation; I think too many scientists are too distant from the world around them.
Luckily for me, for right now at least, all these questions are theoretical. There are no corn growers nearby our Hollister farm, GMO or otherwise, and downwind from us is a cherry orchard, a vineyard, and miles and miles of rangeland. My corn production isn’t being hurt by anyone, nor am I damaging anyone else’s production. I like growing corn, and I want to grow more of it, but before I plant corn next year I plan on researching the botanical, political, spiritual and ethical dimensions of corn. Meanwhile, check out the photos I’ve taken of the Oaxacan green corn; they’re beautiful. I’ll tell you how my green corn bread comes out this winter, and if there’s any interest I can grow a whole bunch of it next year.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Tomatoes and Peppers this Week in San Francisco and Palo Alto! We don’t know how long the tomatoes will last, we may have future tomato days, we may not! Available: Sweet Peppers for roasting, San Marzano Tomatoes, Early Girl Tomatoes, Spicy Red Padron Peppers
Thursday, October 1st in SF at Piccino 4:30-7pm. by pre order only. see the webpage for list, prices, etc.
Friday October 2nd in Palo Alto 3:30-5pm by pre order only. see the webpage for list, prices, etc.
Saturday, October 3rd Harvest Fair at our partner farm in Watsonville: at High Ground Organics. Clicky
3 Photo Essays for your kitchen inspiration:
*San Marzano Sauce Making
*Dried Red Chile Flakes
*Roasted Sweet Peppers