Seed-starting and a vision for Black Aztec corn

It’s a slow day here on Burnett even though the weather is comfortable, and I assume I could find outdoor gardening work to do. But I lack ambition, and my plump, affectionate, gray cat, Jasmine lies on my lap. I love her being here, warming my body and spirits. Yet, her presence makes it awkward to write.

Late this morning, I did run some water from my rain barrels into a bucket of Jiffy organic seed-starting mix to moisten it well. Then to the basement where I put the damp mix into four-inch, plastic pots atop a heating mat to warm up. This is for the tail end of a process I began earlier this week.

I have this desire to grow Black Aztec corn, considering that a friend, who grows BA corn, says it is the best variety to make corn meal. In the past couple of years, I have tried to locate Iowa farmers who would grow some BA for me since I love to use locally-grown corn to make cornbread, polenta, and much more. But alas, I found no Iowan willing to provide me with corn. Part of the challenge would be for a farmer to find a field isolated enough from other fields so the BA corn would not cross pollinate with other corn. And in Iowa, that is indeed a challenge.  However, via the Practical Farmer of Iowa web site, I got advice on how to grow the corn. So I ordered Black Aztec seed from SeedSavers in Decorah.

A few days ago, I soaked about 100 kernels in water (snow melt) for 12 hours. Then I placed the kernels on wet paper towels in gallon Ziploc bags. A few days later, many of the kernels had sprouted, some with half-inch long, white sprouts.

Yesterday, I made a mess in my kitchen when I mixed a few bags of seed-starting mix with rain water to fill four-inch pots. Some are plastic. Some are peat. The good news is that I already had the materials on hand with no new investment for them. I started by putting two seeds in each of several pots, then decided one seed per pot should be sufficient. Now there are 84 pots sitting in the basement waiting for the corn leaves to emerge. I will keep them under grow lights. Eventually the plants will go to my garden but in several small patches. Later today, when the fresh batch of rain water and seed-starting mix has warmed to room temperature, I will sow about two dozen more seed.

My corn advisors suggest growing the plants in spirals and hand-pollinating them. I will do as my friends say even though this presents a learning curve. Hopefully, there will be no drought, and my corn–as well as the rest of my garden (and yours)–will have plenty of moisture.

I had been quite excited about the prospects of growing the BA corn until friends, who also live in Ames, told me how they have grown corn only to have raccoons consume all the corn as soon as the plants start to have silk. So maybe this whole project will be simply one of novelty and pleasure of starting the seed, talking about my hopes, seeing corn stalks at various sites in the garden, then talking about how the raccoons got my corn.

Corn is part of my heritage. I grew up on a farm that has been predominantly corn and beans since the mid-1950s. I recall when farmers cross-checked their corn in rows about a quarter-mile long. And I recall my grandfather from Utah coming to visit and bragging about his son-in-law (my father) having fields a half mile long. And I recall Dad’s fields increasing to a mile long. Not uncommong today. And I recall my father coupling together two, four-row cornplanters to make an eight-row planter that could still cross check corn. That was in the 1950s before chemical agriculture, when farmers cross-checked their corn to make it easier to cultivate (weed) the fields driving from north to south for one pass with the tractor and cultivator then east to west for the next round of cultivating. But alas, chemical agriculture has taken over, and cross-checking corn is a thing of history. It will be interesting to see what forms of precision agriculture emerge when the chemical herbicides are no longer effective. A hint: think drones or robots like the ones I saw in a video clip at the PFI annual conference.

I used to love seeing the half mile and mile long rows of new shoots of corn in Iowa fields. But now I have a disdain for that kind of scene and what it represents about corporate influences on Iowa agriculture and the effects on our environment and economy. Even so, I smile as I think of my own small effort to grow corn. Even if the doggone raccoons eat all my corn, I will have had my own corn fields here on Burnett. Yes, small patches planted in spirals and hand-pollinated. Such a contrast. Hard to reconcile the differences between what is happening here and on 500 acres of land I own in Pocahontas County. Two-thirds is farmed by a set of tenants with status quo practices. One-third is farmed by a young woman who is transitioning to organic practices. And guess what–this will be her first year of producing certified organic corn. That is, with no drought and all else going well for her. She and I need to figure out a system to direct market some of our corn for local consumption. I can already envision storing a few bushels in my basement and selling either the kernels or corn meal to friends and via some place such as the Farm to Folk CSA. But don’t count on me selling my Black Aztec corn. I assume I will be lucky to get even a half bushel of ears of the BA corn. But I will savor every bit of it. I can already envision the corn bread or polenta made with it.

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