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Wednesday, June 22nd 2016


Excursus: A Corn Stack


Woops! I meant to go on talking about ϕ, but got caught up in the agriculture of Indiana by way of a remark on the weather. That's why I like to describe my blog as "mercurial." Long-time readers will know that there have been other times when I was surprised at what I wrote about rather than what I intended to write about.

For the last few days I had to go without a certain medication due to some snafus beyond my control, and I’m very glad to have it back. It was not good, and that's all I can--or maybe want to--say about that.

A couple of cloudy, rainy days, but the temperatures still are definitely in the summer range. If you should drive, bike, or walk to the outskirts of Smalltown, USA, you will find yourself facing corn fields, and you might just hear the corn growing. The standard expectation is that the corn should be “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Many of the fields are knee high already, and will be close to “person high” by Independence Day, I should think. The fields definitely will dominate the view for the next few months.

It looks to me as though the timing worked out quite well for planting corn (aka maize, btw) this year. The big question is always when the fields will be dry enough for tractors and machinery not to sink in the mud. Around March or April, after the snow has melted and we’ve gotten our usual overdose of rain, many of the fields look like lakes. The farmer has to wait for the soil to dry out, and appearances can be deceiving in that regard. An early unusually warm spell can make the fields look dry, but that part may only be a crust with a lot of mud underneath. This is not helpful, for one thing because the farmer’s tractor might get stuck, and for another because such a crust also stands in the way of further evaporation of the water underneath the crust.

Around here, for corn to have enough time to reach full maturity, it needs to be “in” by “Decoration Day,” as I once overheard a farmer say.

  • Excursion: That’s “Memorial Day” for most of us. Among the rural folks here whose social life centers on the “Post” or the “Legion,” it is indeed still “Decoration Day.” Ruby, a sprightly 94-year-old (at the time) lady at one of the churches where I used to preach, would go to the local cemetery first thing in the morning of Memorial Day and make sure there was an American flag planted on the grave of each former service man or woman. Furthermore, just in case she had accidentally omitted someone, she would place two crossed flags at the edge of the cemetery so that they would be included as well. – I find these kinds of observances intriguing, particularly in light of their analogues in other cultures.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that everyone got their corn planted before Decoration Day. One must realize, of course, that there are different kinds of corn with different requirements. Overwhelmingly, the corn grown here is “horse corn” earmarked to become animal feed or silage. It lacks the appeal of the traditional “sweet corn” which is a different species altogether. Horse corn stays out in the field until it's all dried out. You wouldn't want to eat an ear of sweet corn in that condition.

Van Buren, Indiana Speaking of corn, let’s say that you want to watch a movie, and you think a bowl of popcorn would really go well with it. Great! Just be sure you have real popping corn. If you just take a handful of any old type of corn, put it in your microwave or other appliance, and stand by, ready with salt and butter, you may find that it doesn’t work that way. The kernels are not going to spring to life, and you can put the salt and butter back in the cupboard. Popcorn is a different kind of corn from the others mentioned so far. It is distinguished by the fact that, when the kernels have matured, they surround a tiny little drop of water. The heat brings that little bit of moisture to the boiling point, which increases the internal pressure, and the kernel, along with most of its colleagues in the bag, explodes into the white treat we’re all familiar with. So, popcorn is also among the agricultural items that farmers plant around here. About half an hour’s drive from here there is the little town of Van Buren, Indiana, population 864 as of 2010 (Compare to Smalltown, USA,’s population of 5,145. Both are shrinking.) It declares itself to be the Popcorn Capital of the World and celebrates an annual popcorn festival.

But, as another saying goes, “There’s more than corn in Indiana.” Beans (i.e. soy beans, though nobody call them that around here), go in about a week or two later than corn. There are also a few occasional wheat fields; it’s “winter wheat,” which means that it was planted way back in last October or so. You don’t see anything of it all winter, but these fields become some of the earliest and brightest displays of green when spring arrives. By now the wheat has attained its golden color, and it should be ready for harvesting pretty soon. The farmers are also getting ready for the first round of mowing hay.

As long as I’m pursuing this subject, you will also see occasional tomato fields in Indiana and surrounding states. According to the Wikipedia's statistics, if you’re in Indiana and you see a tomato field, there’s a 95% chance that the harvest will be processed into one of the many kinds of canned tomato products at the Red Gold plant, just a short three miles west of here in tiny Orestes, Indiana (pop. 414, not shrinking). Red Gold also has contracts with 80% of the tomato growers in the rest of the Midwest.

  • Excursus: Red Gold still likes to present itself as a mom & pop organization, and maybe it is. The daughter or granddaughter of the owners, I don’t remember which, was in Seth’s 4-H chapter, and went along on at least one fossil and mineral hunting trip with us. By “us” I mean a few 4-H’ers, the leader (Archie H.) who knew all of the best quarries in the state (and all of their managers, and all of their children, and all of their names), and yours truly driving. Still, when I tell you that in 1993 “mom and pop” acquired Stokely-Van Camps’ tomato division, you may see that they’re a major player.

I might mention that, despite a strong heritage of sorghum (aka milo) production in Indiana, it is no longer a major crop here. The Hoosier State had been the nation’s leader in this regard at one time, but it became unprofitable. Nevertheless, there still are a number of sorghum fields, even if the US department of agriculture doesn’t acknowledge their existence. In its early stages, corn and sorghum look a lot alike; the distinction being that sorghum plants are a little shorter than corn and its leaves are spikier. Later on, though, sorghum clearly stands out with much larger and wider tassels than you’ll see on corn.


Pictures courtesy of Sorghum: The Smart Choice--All About Sorghum


Some efforts are being made to reintroduce sorghum as a profitable crop on both public and private levels.

Next time, if I can keep my mind from running off into different directions, the perennial question: Is God a Mathematician?

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