Reflections on the harvest of blue corn in Taos in 2016

Blue corn harvest is husked and put out to dry before grinding.
Blue corn harvest is husked and put out to dry before grinding.    Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

It can be said that my experience with blue corn (maíz azul) is the reason I became interested in agriculture in the first place. You can read about my first experience planting blue corn here. Husking an ear of blue corn is like unwrapping a Christmas present. There is a feeling of excitement from knowing that there can be any kind of surprising colors beneath the layers of leaves surrounding the ear of corn. A person can spend hours admiring the hues of blues, blacks, purples, and reds with sparkles and streaks of white and other colors. Like looking at the clouds, you can envision shapes, patterns, and microcosms of horizons, sunrises, sunsets, the cosmos, and landscapes of this and other planets…

A Native American farmer taught me that corn is the mother, the teacher, and the food source… She taught us about how to feed ourselves, to pay attention to the seasons and the cycles of time, and gave us a multitude of traditions and foods by our attention to her. Since the first time I planted corn, and blue corn at that, I knew that I would always be a maicero, a corn man, and that planting and caring for seeds is something in my blood and bones, something that I didn’t know I had until I took the time to take care of something greater than myself…   From this perspective I believe that corn (and wheat and rice and sorghum, etc.) is the physical embodiment of the Mother Earth, a gift to feed our mind and allow us to develop language, culture, and technology. As I grew up learning the Christian ways and taking communion in Church, I came to the realization that to break bread is a sacred act that represents our evolutionary journey with the Mother Earth to develop consciousness to take care of each other and the gifts of nature…

This image created by Miguel Santistevan shows the integrated relationship between who is know as La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Corn Mother, and the Mother Earth herself, otherwise known as Tonantzin. Image copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

So I have been planting corn for over 20 years but mostly only plant one variety, maybe two, per year. I have a small piece of land and if I plant more that one variety of corn, I risk cross pollination and my dilute the genetics of the variety I am trying to propagate and conserve. Although in some years I intentionally plant two similar varieties that I would like to cross genetics. In the last 13 years I have been farming at Sol Feliz, I estimate I have planted this blue corn about 6 to 8 of those years. Other years have been dedicated to my white, sweet, and pinini (ancestral popcorn) varieties.

This year was mostly a good harvest for my blue corn. I originally obtained this variety in the mid-1990s from a village called Sena in San Miguel County, New Mexico. I really don’t remember how I got it or who I got it from but I know it is a good traditional, open-pollinated, “organic” variety because those are the kinds of a varieties that capture my interest in the first place. So I have been growing this variety and enjoying the products I can make from it: mostly atole (toasted blue corn flour for porridge) and nixtamal (corn cooked in an alkaline solution of ashes or cal to make hominy or masa for tamales). We also like to grind the blue corn into flour for cornbread, pancakes, and waffles.

Blue corn kernels are toasted before being ground into flour for atole, a traditional blue corn porridge.
Blue corn kernels are toasted before being ground into flour for atole, a traditional blue corn porridge. Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

Since corn is regarded at the teacher, we learn about nuances in the seasons, the quality of our soils, and the resilience of our Mother to problems such as drought and other effects of climate change. This year was an interesting year for growing corn. Many of our stalks stayed short and did not even produce an ear. This was perplexing but also experienced by many other corn farmers in our area. One reason could be due to the infestation we experienced this year with grasshoppers. Worms will also eat the corn silk but I have never experienced this kind of impact to pollination and seed setting. I have never harvested so many naked and sparsely-kernelled cobs in addition to the corn plants that never produced an ear. I always get some sparsely-kernelled cobs, especially on the edges of the cornfield, presumably due to lower pollination rates. Since corn is wind pollinated and since each kernel represents a successful link between a corn silk strand and pollen grain, it is possible that not all silk strands will receive a pollen grain, leaving a naked spot or patch on the ear of corn.

The occurrence of so many naked and sparsely-kernelled cobs suggests some kind of negative impact to the pollination process. I have ideas that a changing climate with intense UV radiation, increased Carbon Dioxide levels, and/or temperature extremes can potentially disrupt the ontogeny, or biological development, of the corn and other crops. This is why we believe it is important to keep planting and saving seed during these times of climate change. By planting fields of corn and other open-pollinated crops, a farmer can pay attention to which crops are thriving and save seeds from those. Crops that noticeably suffer might still be good for food, but can then be eliminated from future seed stock. A comparison of our seed saving methods in comparison to other seed banks, or “vaults,” can be heard here.

Bare spots on the cobs reveal a lack of pollination. The kernels show are likely viable, but may not be the best genetics for future plantings.
Bare spots on the cobs reveal a lack of pollination. The kernels show are likely viable, but may not be the best genetics for future plantings. Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

Noticing which crops thrived and which ones suffered implies some kind of genetic, epigenetic, or environmental variation that caused a differential response to conditions in the growing season. Without extensive monitoring, analysis, and experimentation, it is almost impossible to determine which factors are most responsible for success or suffering with particular plants in the field. It could be said, however, that whatever corn produced in the context of grasshopper pressure may have had some inherent resistance to grasshoppers, either by some biological means (i.e. producing some kind of compound that deters grasshoppers) or perhaps by some factor that allowed optimal acquisition of soil nutrients and water with and end result that was able to withstand or prevent grasshopper effects. The flipside of this position is that the corn plants that did not produce kernels or have good pollination may have had some factor that made them vulnerable to grasshoppers.

If crops are vulnerable to grasshoppers and other insects, is it because they were lacking some kind of soil nutrient that weakened their resistance that might have otherwise deterred their herbivory? Does the presence of herbivory imply that there is some kind of genetic or epigenetic cause of weakness OR preference (i.e. does corn silk that was eaten by grasshoppers have more sugar or other nutrients)? Or is the presence or absence of herbivory a function of chance, where some plants just happen to be found or noticed by grasshoppers by random occurrence rather than a biological explanation? These kinds of questions keep the practice of agriculture exciting, interesting, and engaging albeit frustrating at times of loss…

Each silk strand needs to receive a pollen grain to create a kernel within the ear of corn.
Each silk strand needs to receive a pollen grain to create a kernel within the ear of corn. Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

So all of these thoughts come from the accumulation of over 20 years of growing corn and over 6 years of growing this particular variety. We are looking to expand our agricultural operations in the coming years to be able to accommodate more varieties per season and may grow this particular variety of blue corn again in the coming years. But part of me wants to try out other varieties of blue corn, of which there are many, and take that on as a future educational experience to round out my interests and learning about how different varieties respond to our environment and what their culinary qualities could be. We hope you find these deliberations and expressions interesting, feel free to send us comments with your thoughts or questions… Until next time!

NOTE:  All images and text on this website are the property (copyright) of Miguel Santistevan and cannot be used without permission.

3 Responses

  1. Richard Schrader

    Really nice observations that can help us all more deeply understand the impacts of climate change, Watershed health and the health of our communities. Thanks for sharing, Miguel!

  2. jgeerlings

    It seems likely that the kernels saved from those ears that are clearly pollinated well and filled out nicely will yield better in the future. But, what if those kernels on the ears that have only a few developed kernels contain something that best survives adverse conditions that climate change may bring? Maybe some of those few viable kernels on the poorly developed ears should be saved for planting. Until someone tries planting those, assuming that they are less valuable is just an assumption or untested hypothesis. But then, I just may be adversarial. Its your corn, enjoy it.

    • Miguel

      Greetings: Your comment reminded me of what I learned from a Hopi elder: that all the seeds are important, that the crops that did well this year might not do so well next year and vice versa… So I try to plant crops that grew well in the previous years (full pollination, big ears, robust kernels) but I also keep and plant a sampling of the seed that I use for food, which is a collection of random seeds from the almost the entire harvest. Hopefully those seeds bring diverse traits that help the population adapt to the challenges in the future.. Thanks for the comment!

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