Published on Wednesday, August 3, 2016
This is the time of year that one can watch the corn grow week by week, as the plants busily convert sunshine and fresh air into feed and food. The roots are mining the soil to support leaves reaching high into the air in an effort to shade out competition. The plants are doing their best to take over the world, the only way they know how. Even those not involved with agriculture at all associate rural America with mile after mile of corn fields. Everyone is so busy tending crop and thinking ahead to the next task that they seldom stop to ask themselves: Why corn?
I’m Samantha Miller, the Agvocacy lead at Beck's Hybrids. I grew up on the water in Pensacola, raised by two lawyers and spending time over school breaks with my dad on his cotton farm in west Tennessee. I got interested in agriculture in college at the University of Florida from a social justice perspective. If we can grow more calories more efficiently, and there are hungry people on the Earth- then by all means, shouldn’t we? Pursuit of calories (not just Florida’s oranges and tomatoes) brought me to Purdue for graduate school. I’ve been here with Beck's for about a year and a half now, and I recently started asking myself and those around me, “Why corn?”
“To feed the cows”, “Because that’s what daddy did”, “It is all I know” – those were common responses from farmers in the past weeks. There has got to be a better reason that the United States has dedicated 88 million acres to this one crop this year. So, let’s give pause to the question.
When I visited Peru a few years ago, this is how they dried corn in their backyard.
There are an estimated 300,000 edible plant species, and only three: rice, corn and wheat contribute 60% of edible calories to humans worldwide according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. So why corn, specifically? Why corn here in the U.S.? Why not pigweed’s delicious cousin amaranth, teff (one of the earliest domesticated grasses), or a root like cassava or potatoes?
The whole debate can quickly become another version of the chicken and egg. We grow corn because we are good at growing corn, and we’ve gotten good at growing corn because so many people grow corn.
First, the physical climate that our continent offers meets the needs of the corn plant. Dr. Nielsen, the Corn Guy from Purdue University, said, “Of hundreds of grass species, corn had the best yield and is most widely adapted. It started off productive and continued to be improved so well.” This was a common theme. “These soils developed under eight foot tall grass. Corn is an eight foot tall grass. There is nowhere on Earth that is ever going to grow corn as well as the American Midwest,” is a common comment from Dr. Kevin Cavanaugh, Director of Research at Beck's.
Then, consider the product corn offers us humans. Paul Bertels, VP of Production and Sustainability at National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) simply responded, “Because we can use it for so much stuff." His colleague Nathan Fields, Director of Biotech at the NCGA expanded, “As a grain, it is a good vehicle for a lot of things- starch, oil and everything else. It is so versatile.” Nearly every expert contacted for this post touched on the versatility of corn.
I visited a market in Peru where one stand was selling multiple varieties of corn.
In a practical sense, corn is user-friendly. The flower structure makes breeding to improve corn easier than many other grasses. Mr. Fields points out, “Corn makes great little packets called grain- grain flows like a liquid unlike cassava, potatoes or sugar beets. That makes shipping and storage simpler”. Additionally, corn typically doesn’t shell off or shatter in the field, nor does it have a tough outer coating that needs to be milled off before the grain is palatable. Corn has adequate oil content to be worthwhile to process for cooking oil, but not so much that it risks going rancid in storage. The high starch content of the grain makes a great energy source for cattle, humans, and now the fuel industry. Corn is great feed (for those wondering, feed is the food one feeds to food). Corn isn’t so much a food crop directly, instead it is an ingredient in many foods.
There are many people who have dedicated their whole career to the question “why corn?”- I hope you spend a few minutes pondering the question this summer, too.
Author: Samantha Miller
Categories: Ag Education
Tags: beck’s hybrids, corn, Beck’s Blog, Ag Education, Samantha Miller, why do we grow corn
8/5/2016 8:22 PM
Ms. Miller ,
Where can we / you get old Heritage Corn in the USA . Do you have a Source ? I have 7 types planted this year . I can't find my book with 10 or more types it dated mid 80's Its a old Ohio Magazine .
thank you john
8/6/2016 7:06 AM
This article is outstanding. Very well written!