This Week in Jewish Farming: Ode to corn


Before I get to this week’s blog post, I have to give (another) shout-out to my neighbor and custom farm tool designer Larry Giglio, who delivered this marvelous, custom-built tape roller to the farm this morning. It might not seem like the coolest thing ever, but if you’ve ever tried putting away drip tape for the season, trust me when I tell you this is a life saver.


OK, now on to the post …

Drive down the country roads near our farm and you’ll see towering fields of corn dominating the landscape this time of year. It’s not Nebraska, where you can drive for hours and see nothing but the upright stalks and silky tops of cornfields. But even in Connecticut, the scale of the corn crop can be breathtaking.

Corn has a bad rap in the sustainable farming community. The single-largest crop grown in the United States – some 84 million acres were harvested in 2011, according to the EPA, the vast majority genetically modified – corn is, perhaps irredeemably, associated with Big Ag and all its related perversities. Almost none of the farms where I’ve worked previously bothered with it, as if the plant itself were tarnished by association.

Which is a shame. Zea mays is one of North America’s great native crops, precious to indigenous peoples and the savior of the earliest European settlers during that mythic first Thanksgiving — or something like that. It’s fast growing, tolerant of diverse climates and incredibly versatile – as evidenced by the estimated 75 percent of grocery items that contain it (generally in some highly adulterated form).

When we started farming early this year, it never even occurred to me to grow corn. But seeing how easily all the other farmers in the area were getting these huge luscious sheaves made me reconsider.

I bought a couple hundred seeds of a variety called PayDirt. (When you know as little about a vegetable as I know about corn, choosing a variety based on its name seemed as good a reason as any). Our first effort was a total bust. I prepped five beds by hand and individually placed those few hundred seeds in the ground, perfectly timed in advance of a heavy rain, only to have them eaten by hawks that for some reason have decided our upper field is a great place to call home.

Undeterred, I rush-ordered more seeds and plunged them into trays in the greenhouse. As promised, they germinated quickly and grew fast. Transplanting them to the field was delayed by the busyness of midsummer, but we managed to get them in only slightly behind schedule. They haven’t grown quite as tall and robust as the neighbors’ corn, but when Fred and I pulled the first ears off last week and tasted that creamy sugary goodness, the nectar leaked from the corners of our smiling faces. When we need a boost during the workday — a common occurrence this time of year — a quick trip to the corn beds does the trick.

Yesterday, our CSA members got three ears of corn in their boxes, part of a nine-vegetable medley that may well be the peak of our season. Also included were beets, cabbage, parsley, kale, watermelon, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and a few last heirloom tomatoes. By next week, the tomatoes, watermelon and cucumbers will be largely finished and we’ll start in on the fall stuff — potatoes, onions, winter squash, hardy greens. Hard to believe we’ve made it this far — 13 weeks down, 10 more to go.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1920, the Communist Yiddish Daily of Charkov reported that life in the Jewish collectives of Ukraine was “unsatisfactory” since the Jews did not work themselves, but hired peasants in violation of the principle of collectivization.

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