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Saturdays in the Garden: Our Ugly Corn Harvest

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Time and again our little organic family garden has proven that anyone can grow some of their own organic foods:  tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, strawberries — no problem.  It’s been more of a challenge for us with organic corn.  Instead of fabulous harvest photos, I give you our ugly corn harvest!

Ugly Corn 4

This is supposed to be sweet corn, mind you.  While some of it might have cooked up alright, I didn’t bother trying to feed this to the family.  Instead, it makes a great illustration of why gardening can be a humbling experience.

Ugly Corn 2

This is an organic, heirloom sweet corn from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and it’s really not their fault that we were inattentive gardeners with regard to perfectly timed hand pollination.  Heirloom corn needs help getting cross-pollinated to create the best kernel development.  We got too busy this year to give pollination the attention it deserved.

Then there’s the pest management needed.

Saddleback Caterpillar

Upon removing the corn stalks, I found a few of these colorful saddleback caterpillar enjoying themselves.  While these can apparently sting you if touched, they aren’t the worst traditional corn pests.  The corn earworm and the Southern corn rootworm (isn’t it cute the way it reminds you of a ladybug?) were the most likely predators that had their way with this crop.  I’m not exactly sure if this frothy nest amid the roots was anything more than a harmless little critter’s nest, but at any rate, our corn crop was certainly a thriving little wildlife community all its own.

Ugly Corn Roots

In organic gardening and farming, the most important pest management technique is good soil management with organic cover crops, coupled with very attentive pest management techniques. Even in the USDA Organic program some pesticides are allowed for corn.  So, there’s a range of organic corn growing out there, from those using only integrated pest management to those spraying some USDA Organic approved products to keep their corn pest-free.

I asked Iowa farmer Steve Shivvers if it’s hard to grow organic corn, and he explained that it is possible, although he has tended to resort to some approved pesticides.   He answered, “Not all that difficult, just have to have proper weed cultivation equipment.  And spraying equipment.  And organic fertilizer.  I used chicken manure.”  Shivvers explained that customers for organic corn have to understand that it won’t be 100% cosmetically perfect sweet corn, often because of corn earworm. He says he offered organic corn but has not seen the level of demand he would like in order to continue selling organic corn locally.

Other examples of farmers growing organic sweet corn are Breslin Family Farms in Iowa.  Efforts like Iowa’s Farm to Folk work to connect farmers with consumers looking for sustainably grown food.

If I delve into organic corn growing again in our garden, I’ll be more attentive and keep trying the most sustainable organic techniques without pesticides.  In the meantime, I’m more appreciative than ever of those farmers who keep growing organic corn for the rest of us!


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