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
Autumn isn’t far off now. It’s too dark anymore at 6AM for us to harvest so we’re now starting the work day at 6:30. The sun is bright and hot on our backs at mid-day, but the shade under the trees along the creek at the edge of the field is getting deeper and cooler. Evening arrives earlier than it did a month ago, and even with the smoggy glow from Silicon Valley dulling the brilliance of the night sky we’ll soon be able to see Capella rising just after dark.
Capella means “little female goat” in Latin, but don’t look to the sky for a goat jumping over the moon. Capella is a giant star, relatively close to earth as stars go. To scientists, the Goat star is alpha Aurigae, a spectral type G 8 III 0.1 magnitude, binary star that lies 42 light years away in space. This astronomical data sounded like Greek to me until I read what the Greeks really thought.
The ancient Greeks identified Capella as the she-goat Amalthea who suckled the infant Zeus. While he was playing rough house with his goatish wet nurse the rowdy young god broke one of Amalthea’s horns by mistake. Later, as a more mature god, Zeus imbued this broken horn with the power of dispensing copious quantities of food and drink to all who desired it. Poor, wounded Amalthea’s horn became the Cornucopia, or the horn of plenty.
Over time this mythic image of a broken goat’s horn bleeding forth nature’s bounty was appropriated by artists who wished to suggest overflowing abundance. Advertisers followed in the wake of art and the horn of plenty made its appearance in countless ads and logos. Illustrators working for advertising agencies reworked the original bloody goat horn into a charming but less visceral horn-shaped wicker basket. No mystery there; Madison Avenue invites us to wallow in consumption; there’s not much money to be made stimulating consumers to meditate on the capricious nature of abundance.
The identification of overflowing bounty with a goat’s horn didn’t seem as odd to the ancients as it may to us now. At one time people measured their wealth in goats. Second Chronicles 17:11 tells the story of Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. “Some of the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents, and silver for tribute; Arabians brought him flocks, seven thousand, seven hundred rams and seven thousand, seven hundred goats. And Jehoshaphat waxed great exceedingly and he built in Judah castles…” As the Goat star made its seasonal ascent into the evening sky the ancient farmers of the Fertile Crescent were reminded that both the autumnal equinox and the bounty of the fall harvest were drawing near.
Scientists look at Capella through a telescope and describe two distant balls of constantly exploding gas locked in a gravitational Fall Renewal Time tango. The Goat star’s ritual fall rising is dismissed as an optical illusion. Earth is not the center of the universe. We spin on an axis and in due course we revolve again to witness Capella over our northern horizon at dusk. The fact that this cyclic event occurs as our seasons slip from summer into fall is a mere coincidence having nothing to do with goats. Science leaves the nanny goat, Amalthea, with no role to play at all in astronomy and the myth of her broken horn is a children’s story.
But even when science explains everything, it means nothing. Explanation is about facts, and meaning is about us; we are self-centered and significance revolves around our needs. Naming a spectral type G 8 III 0.1 magnitude, binary star after a goat tells us nothing to us about stars but the myth of Capella can be appreciated for the faint light it casts on the meaning of abundance. Capella, the name, is cognate with the Latin noun capra, meaning goat. Mother Nature is “capricious” in the purest sense of the word, which originally meant “to behave like a goat.” The harvest does not come spilling out of a horn-shaped wicker basket horn; that is truly a childish attitude. There is blood to pay. We work hard for everything we eat, whether we labor in actual fields of vegetables, grains and fruit, or slaughter and butcher livestock or work in more metaphorical “fields of endeavor.” Sometimes a rich harvest is a just reward for all our labors. Other times, despite our best efforts, abundance bounds away from us like a wild goat gone to hide from the slaughter in thick brush.
This year, as I look around our two small farms, I see tomatoes and peppers hanging red and gold on the vines, and rows of carrots, strawberries and lettuces. Our coolers are stuffed with potatoes, our barns are stacked high with onions, and our fields are filled with squash and pumpkins turning sweet in the heat of late summer. When I get out of bed in the middle of the night to check on a bleating sheep or quiet a barking dog I see a faint sparkle getting brighter, low in the north eastern sky; Capella is rising. Alpha Aurigae shines back down at me unblinking. I rub my eyes and I think of the slit pupils of Amalthea’s weird, golden, goat eyes; alert, beautiful, inscrutable and uncanny.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
This Saturday I’ll be in San Francisco with one of our ‘Too Many Tomatoes‘ Events: all by pre order: email me to let me know what you’d like. I’ll be on Folsom at one of our Two Small Farms pick up sites. When you make an order, I’ll send you the address. 10am-12 noon. San Marzano Tomatoes, Early Girl Tomatoes, BeefSteaks, Mixed Sweet Peppers for roasting and freezing, Spicy Chiles for making salsa etc, and of course Pimiento de Padron peppers!
brand new San Marzano Tomato Canning Photo Essay! 1 box = 9.5 quarts in my house…
2 more Tomato Upick Days planned: Thursday 9/24 & Saturday 9/26: both in Hollister at our farm, both from 9am to1pm. All Tomatoes 50 cents/pound. See you there! (open to all)
Ladybug Truck Farm Buying Club (open to all)
Vegetable Recipes A-Z
Two Small Farms CSA
Food Bloggers We Know