Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - June 2008
Kernel of Difference
The growing demand for organic corn means healthier soil, cleaner water and perhaps even better-tasting foods.
Glenn Roberts reaches his hand toward the top of a sturdy cornstalk planted in one of the many fields at his South Carolina farm. The owner of Anson Mills, he has been growing organic corn—or maize, as he calls it—for nearly two decades, and he has become finely attuned to the wide-ranging environmental impact of the crop he sows and harvests. "By being an organic grower and using crop rotation in smaller fields, I get an incredible insight about what that food means," Roberts says. And it's not just about nutrition or cooking.
While superior flavor may be one factor behind the burgeoning market for organic corn, increased purchases also translate into a host of environmental benefits. The crop can affect everything from the quality of local water to the taste of organic milk. Here are just a few of the ways, large and small, that choosing organic corn can make a difference.
"Corn, which is a row crop, tends to decrease soil health," says Charles Mohler, senior research associate in crop and soil sciences at Cornell University. "The ground is bare between rows for long periods of time, there's more cultivation and the corn root system doesn't build soil quality the way grain does. Corn also has some really heavy nitrogen requirements."
Today's organic corn growers promote soil health by rotating crops through a three-, five-, seven- or even, in Roberts' case, a 17-year cycle. The winter mustards, cane, soybeans, spelt, clover, alfalfa, wheat and other crops that organic growers plant in alternating years help counter the degradation of the soil. Crop rotation also allows organic growers to avoid the bane of conventional farming: insecticides used to combat the corn rootworm. The rootworm flourishes by laying its eggs in a cornfield the first year; the insects hatch the following year. Since organic growers never plant corn in successive years, they're able to naturally disrupt the rootworm's life cycle.
Atrazine, pendimethalin and metolachlor are just three of the chemical herbicides that conventional corn growers may use, many of them petroleum-based. If applied incorrectly, such chemicals can cause fish kills or infiltrate the groundwater supply, says Mohler.
Organic growers don't use conventional chemicals, so their fields have more wildlife and sometimes even fewer pest problems. "There are a number of studies showing that organic farms tend to have higher wildlife habitat quality, with more birds and small mammals," says Mohler. "If you're not applying toxins to the soil, there are more insects of all types, which is beneficial."
Beef cows eat corn, dairy cows eat corn, even corn-chip factories "eat" corn. With rising demand for organic corn, consumers have a chance to experience a complexity of flavors in their foods. Many think that organic options taste better.
"We're hoping to rebuild the connection that people have to their food," Roberts says. "If you pull processing aspects out of it, eating things closer to the farm, there's a revelation in cooking and eating."
Mohler says there's also an important sociological factor to all those family farms growing organic corn: Small but successful farms contribute to a healthy rural economy. Good for you, good for the earth, good for others—that's a lot of power from a little ear of corn.