Magic in the Cornfield

It has been said that there is magic in a cornfield. One of the world’s largest crops, legend has it that corn originated through the spirits. Easy to grow, easy to harvest, and easy to store, most of us think of corn as a vegetable. It is, but only when eaten on the cob.

The corn plant, a tall grass, is classified as a cereal grain; its’ botanical name is Zea Mays; “zea” meaning “to live,” and “mays” meaning “mother.” The word maize is thought to have evolved from the Taino people of the Caribbean and their word mahiz, which meant “source of life.” This early designation transmuted to the Spanish maiz, and then to the English maize.

American colonists quickly adopted the planting, growing, and harvesting of corn from their Indian neighbors in the early American colonies. It is thought that Spanish explorers brought the grain back to Europe from their 15th and 16th century explorations in the New World. Roughly one-third of the world’s population today depend on corn as their primary staple food, followed by wheat and rice.

This month’s episode of FoodPaths brings three different takes on this versatile food featuring Dean Schwebach of Schwebach Farm, John Aday of Aday Farms, and Sue Houser, author of the recent children’s book, “The Corn Whisperer.”

Dean Schwebach and his family grow corn, pumpkins and beans -- “The Three Sisters” --and other crops on roughly 130 acres in Moriarty, New Mexico, nestled in the heart of the Estancia Valley between the outer reach of Albuquerque and the eastern range of the Sandia Mountains. While farming is the core of his life, this graduate of the University of New Mexico, tells us that he was “off the farm for nearly 20 years” as a public accountant. Today he blends his family history as growers with his business background. Schwebach Farm is known for farming pesticide-free, sustainable, and non-GMO corn and other cash crops.

Schwebach Farm Market is well known in the region. Now in its 15th season, produce from its garden – including melons, berries, onions, tomatoes, Heirloom Bolita and Pinto Beans, pumpkins corn, and popcorn, -- are rotated through the growing season. Schwebach produce can also be found at farmer’s markets and stores throughout the region. During season, trucks and trailors with corn are often found roadside in Albuquerque and the East Mountain area. Schwebach corn doesn’t last long at these outreach sites.

Dean and his wife, Ivellise (Ive) and their children – Nathan, Ellysia, Dominic, Adelaida, Thomas, and Elena - work the farm throughout the year. Schwebach Farm is known for producing “Big Ears” of corn, specifically the super sweet “Ice Queen” variety and the “Extra Tender” variety known for its hallmark white and yellow kernels. The farm is known for its roasted ears of corn sold at markets and on site.

“We grow a bigger ear known for its eating quality,” said Dean,” We’re fortunate. Our elevation – 6,200 ft.– brings out greater sugar levels in the corn as the evenings become cooler. This increases the flavor, and impacts a longer selling season for our crop.”

“In the early years, when I was in high school, my dad grew more corn and Pinto Beans,” said Dean. “He started the produce business first; the Farm Market came along later. He had been leasing pieces of land to grow grain, and finally set aside an adjacent “garden” which serves the Farm Market today.”

Dean’s father bought the acres on which Schwebach Farm is located; his parents still live seasonally in a motor home on the land adjacent to the Farm Market, close enough to be a part of the business, and mobile enough when they decide to pick up and travel on their own.

Today the acreage is roughly divided into 33 acres of corn, 36 acres of Pinto and Bolita Beans, and 4.5 acres for the garden. The remainder consists of cover crops that rotate each year.

“I was three when Dad bought the land for the farm,” Dean said. “He loved the area. It was perfect for what he wanted to farm, and he was also able to acquire the water rights along with the land. His goal was to enhance the availability of local fresh fruit and vegetables for the community by increasing the farm’s own acreage of fruits and vegetables. That was a successful decision. The Farm Market opened a few years later, furthering that initial goal.”

Recently, said Dean, the farm has begun packaging new products such as “Chicos,” smoked and dried corn kernels used as natural flavor enhancers in soups and stews. The farm is currently using its Ice Queen Sweet Corn to produce “Chicos.”

The word corn evolved from the German word kurnam, meaning a small particle or kernel. The gluten in corn (elastic protein) is of low quality, and thus cannot be used to make leavened bread.  At the same time, corn (dent corn, yellow or white) is used to make masa, a kind of dough used widely in tortillas, tamales, or hominy (flint or dent corn). When dried, it can also be a decoration. The sweet corn kernel can also be a healthy snack food… perfect for Chicos!

“The corn kernel itself is the grain,” Dean explained. “You can eat Chicos like corn nuts, or add a handful to beans or soups. They re-hydrate, permeating the beans and other ingredients in the soup or stew to bring out the natural flavors of the ingredients.” 

“We are also developing new products leveraging the crops we are already growing,” he continued, clearly indicating the role his business background plays in his view toward the farm.

Will the farm be developing additional new products for the future? Dean paused a minute.

“Our children are our future,” he said.  “We are a large family. We learn from them. Our next goal is leaning toward more family-focused activities like Farm Field Trips, Farm Dinners, and Sunset Hay Rides that help people understand what it takes to grow food, and then use that knowledge in helping to develop new educational skills for their children.”

John Aday’s main crop is silage, corn grown for animal feed and a key component of the dairy industry. Over the past decade or two, large numbers of the California Dairy Industry re-located to New Mexico where the land is cheaper, the climate perfect, and the regulatory environment more welcoming. This farmer grows feed corn for this industry. He also grows pumpkins for people.

John had no intention of joining the family business. He had worked on the family farm as a child, but left after high school, where he met his wife, Diane, to work construction in Albuquerque. When his father retired, he and Diane, now married, returned to Moriarty on the outskirts of the city to help his father and run the 160 acre family farm.

“New Mexico is a great place for weather,” John said. “The Northern part of the state has lakes and mountains. In the Southern part, there is desert. Albuquerque is at 6200 ft. altitude and is cooler. Our climate here is perfect for specific crops. Corn is one of them. Pumpkins and beans are the others. And that’s why you often hear that this is home to the Three Sisters. The trio are often planted together as interdependent crops. The tall corn stalks provide shade for the squash and pumpkins that grown in vines on the ground, and the beans encircle the stalk as they grow upward.

This year our pumpkin crop was pummeled by hail,” John said. “Our loss was huge, 70 – 80 percent over six different kinds of pumpkins. The largest ones were hit the hardest. I had the option of plowing the entire crop under, replanting, or staying with what was salvageable.”

He stopped, and pointed to a large rash of leaves intertwined with green stems. “Look! Here’s a pregnant pumpkin,” John said, pointing to a fertilized ovarian bud. We’ll have a crop.”

Walking through the Aday Farm corn field, John showed me a green corn stalk with early tassels whose silk threads would later pollinate the corn kernels. Cutting away at the protective outer layers of leaves, a tiny corn cob emerged.

“The tassel at the top of the stalk attaches to the silk of the ear which gathers the pollen which in turn, then pollinates the kernels lining the ear of corn,” John explained. “Each piece of silk is connected to one kernel. The pollen carried by the silk must touch the kernel. Rows of kernels form each ear of corn.

“The size of the ear depends on the variety or breed of corn,” he continued. “Oddly, each row contains an even number of kernels. Never an odd number. If you plant one ear of corn in a garden, it may not grow. If you plant in a cluster, the stalks will cross-pollinate. It’s good to have wind, but not that much so the pollen flies away. Pollination takes place in a 72-hour time frame, and cooler weather is better than hot.”

“Do we spray?” John smiled. “When the silk comes out, the moth lays eggs on it. The eggs hatch into worms, and the worms destroy the kernels before you can even see them. Unless you kill the worms before they hatch you are going to have corn filled with worms.”

“Corn has been a relatively recent crop here,” he continued. “This area – Estancia and Moriarty – was covered in bean fields for generations. In the 1930’s and ‘40’s this area was dry-farmed. There was plenty of rain and the crops flourished with the natural moisture.

“But in the 1950’s, the ground ‘blew up.’ There was drought. The entire area was in bean fields. It was the capital of beans. Pinto Beans. Everyone grew them. Until there was no water. The ‘bean thing” phased out in the 1980’s.

“You can read about that time,” he offered. “There’s a book. ‘The Milagro Bean Field War.’ It was made into a movie and tells the story of what happened when the farmers could no longer farm Pinto Beans and had to leave the valley. There are only a few bean farmers left today. And everything is irrigated. Water rights are tightly regulated.

“A farmer today either tries to dry-farm or irrigates,” John added. “We have ‘Monsoons’ in August when the clouds build in the afternoons and literally burst into rain for short periods of time. But you never know. And there is always the chance of dust storms here, or a major haboo that will carry off the top soil. Today we have some water issues, but it’s generally more community managed.”

Silage is simply fermented plant fodder. Here is John’s recipe:

  • Chop up the entire plant – stalk, ears, leaves, stalk and husks.
  • Pack all the parts down and then drive a tractor over the rows to compress.
  • Add alfalfa to the corn piles to add an extra nutritional component.
  • Move the components to a pit, cover the pile with plastic and top with tires.
  • As the silage sits in the heat, it begins to ferment; the plastic and tires keep the moisture in, the winds and insects out.
  • The heat thus “cooks” the “silage stew” and the corn turns into animal food.  

“Most of the corn farmers here keep the silage piles on their own land and deliver it to the dairy farms daily, often up to 75 tons a day or 500 tons a week,” John added. “This way farmers can hold and manage the silage on their own lands and have enough in stock for many seasons over several years.”   

Today, many cultures celebrate the importance of corn as a food source through harvest dances and rituals such as scattering cornmeal to the wind or keeping a dried ear of corn in the house to assure the protection of the crop. Linked to fertility, wisdom and divine connections, the importance of corn around the world remains today.

Both male and female gods have played a role in the legends surrounding corn, but no myth is stronger than that of the Corn Mother who is said to have introduced corn to the indigenous populations in Central America and Southern Mexico. The Corn Mother, in many oral traditions and stories, is personified as a woman, usually a goddess who is signified by abundance, fertility, children, harvest, health, and strength. She is symbolized by corn and corn sheaves.         

Sue Houser is the author of the recently published children’s book, “The Corn Whisperer,” and the sister of corn farmer John Aday. Her book features a trio of stories handed down by a grandfather to his grandson about becoming self-sufficient, accepting and valuing change, and forgiveness. Undyling the stories is the realization that cultural myths and legends hold universal truths that apply to everyday life.

“I grew up in the corn fields,” she said, “I never appreciated the wonder of nature and the magic of the grower. It was all about eating the corn. Farming has changed so much,” she continued. “My father was a good farmer. I don’t think I appreciated what he did, or what my brother does today. Even the best farmer is subject to the whims of Mother Nature!”

“I gained a new respect for the co-dependent relationship we have with corn. Although corn fertilizes itself, corn depends on us to prepare the ground, plant the kernels, pull the weeds, and water the plants. In turn, we are rewarded with food for ourselves and our animals, mulch for the soil, husks for weaving, bedding, dolls, and even decoration for our homes.”

Sue decided to try and grow corn herself, planting twelve kernels of variegated, colorful strains of decorative Indian Corn in four large pots on her patio.

“It must be something in my blood,” she said.  “I amazed myself!”

“There’s a spiritual aspect to corn,” she said.  “You can hear it growing.  Listen carefully. The stalks rustle in the winds, the leaves crinkle and the kernels pop. It’s magic.”

Even the animals can sense the spirit of a corn field.


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