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Archive for August, 2014

Land of CORNfusion

Sometimes it seems that my job as ag literacy coordinator may boil down to just one thing: teaching people the difference between sweet corn and field corn.

field_sweet_popcornIt’s not the kids who are confused. Younger children accept the fact that sweet corn and field corn are considerably different—and that most of what farmers grow is the latter—as a matter of course. My take on this is that little kids are learning new stuff all the time so they aren’t taken aback by yet another new fact. It’s the adults who almost always seem surprised. They’re even more startled when they learn that the vast majority of corn grown is field corn. The occasional adult who does know the difference will refer to the field corn as “feed corn,” which is a fairly accurate if not somewhat dated term.

So much of what I teach hangs on this basic understanding. Thus, practically every lesson I develop for classroom and community presentations incorporates at least a few moments devoted to the distinction between the corn we eat as a buttery vegetable and the corn that surrounds us in waving fields of green glory.

Thankfully, I find corn to be an endlessly fascinating topic. A quick mention of field vs. sweet corn during a presentation easily becomes a 10-minute detour as I share intriguing details about how field corn is grown and used. In fact, my new favorite teaching tool this summer is a corn plant freshly cut from a field. Interesting fact: an average fully-grown corn plant will extend all the way from the passenger side glove compartment to the rear gate of a Subaru wagon, and will NOT fit in an 8-foot pickup bed unless you fold over at least the bottom 2” of the stalk. Displaying the stalk in a room with an 8” ceiling also presents challenges.

The discussion can get even more interesting when you toss other kinds of corn into the mix. Popcorn is usually the next type of corn that comes up and it, too, causes confusion. A few years ago, someone donated several dozen ears of popcorn for me to give away to teachers, along with instructions on how to pop it in the microwave without shelling it first. One teacher to take advantage of the giveaway was a friend of mine who grew up on a farm. She requested enough ears to share with other classrooms, as well. That led her to a conversation with a fellow teacher who, while looking at the ears of popcorn, asked in obvious consternation, “So… in order to have corn on the cob, is this soaked in water until it’s soft?” Mind you, this was an adult who had been born and raised in DeKalb, Illinois, not someone from a big city or another part of the country where corn isn’t grown (and isn’t celebrated with a huge festival every summer).

Instances like this remind me why I have a job doing what I do. Even in our mostly rural county, even where you can’t travel more than a mile without passing at least one cornfield, most people don’t understand much about corn.

I call that job security.


This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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