Corn is big business. Thanks to Michael Pollan and films like King Corn and Food Inc, public awareness about the politics and pervasiveness of corn is growing. Current government subsidies are at 4 billion a year, basically paying farmers to keep corn cheap. Cheap corn has given us a 1000% increase in the amount of high fructose corn syrup that we consumed between 1970 and 1990. A quarter of the products on your grocer’s shelves contain some form of corn. HFCS producers now run ads insisting that corn syrup is perfectly good for you, even as experts point to the parallel tracks of our consumption of it and our obesity epidemic.
(link to a trailer for the movie King Corn)
With all the debate about corn, I am always reminded of the years of my life that were spent in an ocean of it. A recent trip home was spent driving up and down the state to visit relatives, often on roads lined solidly with acres and acres of corn, as far as the eye can see. This is the landscape of my mid teens, when the corn became as much a presence in my life as the sky and water.
With a grand total 102 human residents, our town was just a cluster of houses on a short road between the fields. All the roads were laid out in neat squares, so that the fields were tidy. At one end of town was a grain elevator, where all the trucks lined up at harvest time. During the last months of summer, corn kernels lined the street like gravel. At the elevator, where we hung out after dark sometimes, there was a thick mat of corn, moist, sprouting, and fermenting slightly, that sprung back when you walked on it. Birds circled constantly, although large amounts of poison were put out to keep the massive rats to a minimum.
Summertime was when kids could make some money working in the fields. I got a job on a detasseling crew. Detasseling, as I was to come to understand, is part of the big corn business. You see, when all those fields and fields of corn are planted, they are planted with copyrighted genetic material. No farmer can save seed or plant something that is not licensed and controlled by one of the big agri-corporations. To achieve this control, the system is set up for hybrid corn.
Two kinds of corn are planted in every field, 6 rows of “female” corn and rows of “male” corn between them. No corn is really male or female, but to create sterile, bybrid seeds, the six rows of female corn must have their pollen-producing tassels removed, so that the chosen pollens of the male rows will fertilize them.
It certainly seemed like a weird system, once I got a grasp on it, to a kid transplanted from the city to the bucolic countryside. It was also my introduction to hot, hard work. A school bus picked us up in front of the church at 3 am, and we entered the fields in near darkness. The dew made the soil into thick muck, which covered your shoes and dried as the day went on. By lunch it was hard as rock and we all spent some time cracking and stomping to drop the pounds of clods that were slowing our pace. Walking between the female rows, we reached up and pulled the top section off of each corn plant. They made a little squeak as they separated. We threw the unnecessary pollen organs to the ground and kept moving. The leaves of the corn struck back in protest, their sharp edges cutting any skin they could reach, and each day my arms were an object lesson in a death by a thousand cuts. By noon, the sun was merciless, so you had to choose between covering your skin and working in sweat drenched long sleeves. We all wanted a tan, anyway.
I’m sure that the work is done by migrant workers now. Looking back, every year the first week saw three or four kids downed by the heat. The managers just put them on the bus to lie down while we finished our day. There was no way anybody was getting a ride home.
Like the rest of the kids, it never occurred to me to turn down the work. Everybody was doing it. It felt really good to lie in a cool bath when the day was over, and I bought some clothes for school with the money. I was just a tiny cog in the machine of big corn, all those years ago.
So if you are ever driving through or flying over all those oceans of corn, remember, that is as copyrighted and controlled as a McDonalds burger or a Disney character. Those little signs at the edges of the fields identify the hybrid, and you had better not try to eat any. It’s all inedible, fit only for processing into High Fructose Corn Syrup or animal feed. Take a turn into a small town between all that fertile ground, and you will find only chain restaurants, serving processed food from far away.
At least it all contains corn.