This spring I purchased Painted Mountain Corn seed from two suppliers following the stirring encouragement of New Ordinance (“Rocky Mountain Corn: The Secret Weapon”). In spring of 2012 seed was selling for around $ 20/lb. This fall I see it’s commonly selling for around $ 30/lb and up!
I’m planning on saving a lot of seed, selling a little, and experimenting with cooking this amazing field corn in a variety of ways. (Remember, it’s field corn, not sweet corn. You dry it and grind it into flour to make tortillas, tamales, chips, and much more!)
Using a marked measuring line, I planted 200 seeds one inch deep, 1’ apart in rows 2’ apart, in an established garden area about 20’x20’ .I took a glance at each seed I planted to plant the biggest and best-looking seed, and saved the odd or broken seeds for cooking. I fertilized it with plenty of chicken manure, and supplemented with a general commercial fertilizer as my insurance against not having enough nitrogen in the soil (corn are heavy feeders and this was my very first attempt).
The fertilizer was added when the plants were knee-high (6-8 leaves), one tablespoon per plant 5” from the stem, and again when the plants were silking and ears beginning to form. (If you don’t have livestock for manure you probably should consider stashing a couple of big bags of all-purpose fertilizer!)
Basically, the drier your weather, the further apart the seeds need to be so each plant can scavenge enough moisture from the surrounding soil. Ditto for soil fertility: the less fertile the soil, the further apart the plants need to be. Corn is not normally planted only 1’ apart, but I figured that since I was supplying the water and fertilizer, the plants could be closer together. For the scoop on corn root spread, root depth, watering requirements and scheduling, and more take a look at this web page.
My first planting was done a few days after the last average frost day for Spokane, May 15. But the weather got cold and wet again and I lost all of that planting. Once the weather warmed up again I replanted in mid-June. I toyed with planting them in little pots for better germination, but I wanted a technique that I could scale up, and transplanting 2,000+ little pots in my next attempt was just absurd…
My corn patch was watered from above by an oscillating rectangular-pattern lawn sprinkler, on a 6’ post in the middle of the patch. My goal was to give the corn about 1” of water per week. I watered them in the morning so that the plants would dry off with the rising sun and we would not have mold issues. I was concerned with sprinkler-watering when the corn was in silk (releasing pollen that needs to stick to each silk to produce a kernel of corn), but I had only a few ears of corn that weren’t 100% pollinated, so that didn’t seem to be an issue.
By the way, with pollinating insects at a low in our neck of the woods you’ll be interested to know that corn is wind pollinated. So even if the bees are having a tough time you’ll still have corn! This is why you always have to plant corn in blocks, and not in single rows – the pollen needs to be blown around them.
Weeding was done with a hula-hoe and the 2’ rows were just wide enough for me to walk down the row. After the first weeding the weeds that came back just weren’t an issue so I didn’t have to do it again. Most of my weeds are pigweed and not a huge problem – in fact, the chickens and sheep like them!
The corn plants showed amazing genetic variation, which is one of the reasons it is such a robust variety. Some of the plants were more than 6’ tall, others were barely 3’. Each plant had one ear of corn, on average. The ears on shorter plants were no smaller than those on larger plants. Just a few plants “lodged” – fell over in a windstorm we had – but continued to grow and produced ears!
The kernel colors were amazing! Several ears had every color in the rainbow, as well as beautiful patterns and rays. I could have sold the entire crop just for holiday decorations!
I was expecting the corn to dry on the stalk and be collected after being completely dry. Instead, the corn started to dry and we had a wave of cold weather that threatened to damage the crop. Theoretically, this corn can take a light frosting, but I didn’t want to take the chance, so I picked all the ears before the frost (mid-October). Freeze-damaged kernels can still be dried and eaten for food, but won’t germinate as seed.
It turns out that the corn was drier than I thought. While the plants were still about half-green, I had missed the clue that they were ready to pick when the corn patch sounded “rattle-y” when watered. I should have stopped watering at that point, but I didn’t for another week and so had three or four ears with a little bit of mold on them.
I husked the ears right in the patch and then discovered that the best way to dry them is to knot two or three corn husks together (after pulling the husks back to expose the kernels) and hang them from a hook or nail in the ceiling of my house, where they wouldn’t freeze (that would be the grid-down solution, not one your wife would ordinarily endorse…).
What I ended up doing was laying them on a table in my garage with a fan blowing on them to dry them quicker and prevent molding. That would not have been an option if the power was off – hanging the drying ears is definitely the way to go.
Flex a few ears of corn when you first harvest them to get a baseline of how flexible they are when not yet dry. When the ear of corn stiffens up (it won’t be completely hard) and when you can’t dent the kernels with pressure from your fingernail, they are ready to shell. There’s no rush, so be sure they’re good and dry! I found about a dozen solitary moldy kernels out of all my ears of corn, and one cob that had slightly molded – just because the kernels are dry doesn’t mean the cobs are completely dry yet.
I bought one of those familiar solid aluminum hand-shellers (“Decker Corn Sheller”) but the ears of Painted Mountain corn are a lot narrower in diameter than regular corn and just pass right through the sheller. (Once shelled, the Painted Mountain cob diameter is between 5/8” and 1”.)
So, I took a 6 ounce can of tomato paste and removed both lids (the Oxo Smooth Edge can opener from Sears – and others like it – lifts the lids off and leaves NO sharp edges), and pounded the can body down into the sheller with a mallet. A little extra shaping with a screwdriver and I had a smaller-diameter sheller that worked fairly well (a lot faster than shelling with my bare hands, let me tell you!). It wouldn’t last very long, but it did the job a lot better than my bare hands!
I finally did more shopped around on the Internet and found a cast aluminum hand sheller rated for popcorn (labeled “Burrows P Pcorn”) and it was The Very One for Painted Mountain corn! It’ll last for decades, and has no sharp edges that might scratch the surface of a kernel intended for seed, though I did take a fine file to mine just to be sure!
With my new Burrows sheller I can shell an ear of corn in about 10 seconds, but there are sometimes a few kernels that I have to dislodge with my fingers. The kernels are as hard as a rock and aren’t damaged by the contact with metal – as long as there are no sharp points or edges. Some persistent kernels did get damaged by the sheller – scraped across the tops, but those were pretty rare. (Another reason to look at the seed corn when you’re planting it to make sure it’s not damaged, broken, or moldy.)
DOING THE MATH
The 200 corn plants which I raised on 400+ square feet of ground produced about 30 pounds of corn. Each ear produced, on average, about 1/6th of a pound. At this yield an acre would produce around 3,000 lbs (if I did the math right). Our season was short and I planted the seeds closer than recommended – your results may vary!
Now, my dozen or so chickens might eat about 20 pounds of scratch a month (as cracked corn combined with 20 lbs of cracked wheat) year-round, and grid-down my family might eat 4 pounds of corn a week (about 200 lbs/year), in addition to other crops. On a subsistence basis then, I would need to plant a 77’x77’ corn patch with 2 lbs of seed to raise 440 lbs.
You’d probably get better sheer food production by raising, say, potatoes. But you’d have to preserve/store your crop for an entire year and that’s a real trick without electrically controlled temperature and humidity. And potatoes cannot be frozen, whereas completely dried corn can. So raise both!
For those of you who are just starting out with corn I would like to recommend you purchase at least a year’s worth of dried GMO-free corn right now to store. Who knows if we’ll be able to grow anything the first year after a crisis?! I bought bulk organic corn from a local organic grocery in town (Huckleberry’s, if you’re in the Spokane area), but you can also buy it online. You might be interested to know that the mad scientists have not yet genetically engineered blue corn, which you can buy online in bulk from places like Honeyville (www.honeyvillegrain.com). Blue cornbread for Thanksgiving – or beautiful purple-tinted home-made Painted Mountain cornbread – with lots of butter!!
If your corn is not going to be a large part of your diet you can just run the dry corn through your electric or crank grain mill and make flour that way. If you plan to use corn as a substantial part of your survival diet, or it just happened that way because your other crops failed, then you should consider nixtamalizing it!
I’ve successfully made hominy (nixtamalized corn) by pre-soaking 2 lbs of dried corn in water for two hours, then bringing it to a boil with ¼ cup pickling lime in 3 quarts of water, then simmering for 60 minutes, and letting it sit overnight, covered. The hominy can then be rinsed, boiled to desired softness and eaten as hominy (warmed with butter!), or ground wet in a food processor or hand grinder (not a grain mill!) into dough and add water after grinding to make masa. I’ve stored enough pickling lime to treat all the (organic!) corn I have stored. Read up on this process for more details!
You can also nixtamalize corn with wood ash, but it takes longer. You use as much sifted wood ash as you do corn (1:1), and boil it longer depending on the type of wood burned to produce the ash. The ash gives it a bubbling mud / Yellowstone effect, but you rinse the ash off in the end (NOT down your drain!) and the result is the same – your corn will be more nutritious! Have a look at these two videos: The Derelict Epistle: Making and Cooking Traditional Hominy Part 1 and, The Derelict Epistle: Making and Cooking Traditional Hominy Part 2.
Store your corn in paper sacks or feed bags, not in sealed plastic bags. Once thoroughly, thoroughly dry, I store mine in galvanized steel trash cans with plastic drum liners, and sprinkle diatomaceous earth both in the can before I fill it and on top of the corn once it’s full. And I keep a generous supply of mouse poison in my storage area as well!
Save enough seed to replant if you get bad weather like I did, and save enough so you’ll have seed for the next year (with an emergency replant!), should your entire crop get completely skunked that year. In my case, with the larger 77’x77’ plot, I’d want to save around 8 pounds of seed. And let me recommend setting aside some corn seed for any neighbors within a 1,000 foot minimum distance who might want to raise corn after the crash. That way their corn pollen won’t contaminate yours!
Don’t forget to rotate corn between gardens or garden areas to keep corn pests in the soil to a minimum!
For a lot more information about growing corn and all the reasons why it is a superb survival crop, see the chapter on corn in Carol Deppe’s excellent book, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times
or read Chapter 12 online via Google Books.
I do hope you’ll consider raising corn as one of your survival crops. It is a versatile and nutritious food and one you’ll enjoy growing!
Trust God. Be Prepared. We can do both!
ShepherdFarmerGeek, Trusting Jesus in Spokane