Olivia Sanders, Dig In! Field Manager
Heirloom corn– with its dented kernels and browning, wormy tip, it doesn’t look like it belongs in the same world as the shiny, uniform corn in the supermarket. And in some ways, it lives in a different world entirely. Heirloom foods are historical breeds that have been saved and refined for generations, many of them passing through families to a time before European colonization. They represent the diversity and the stories that were present on our dinner plates before commercial breeds we now see in the grocery store became ubiquitous. While our heirloom field corn might not look pretty to many of us, to some of our neighbors it looks just right. It may look just like the grain they grew up shucking, hanging in barns, and taking to the grist mill. This corn has passed through so many hands and carries the intergenerational story of Appalachian agriculture.
We planted our heirloom variety “Goose corn” kernels in circular mounds in June, guarding the sprouts with row cover until they grew too big to fit in a crow’s mouth. After that, we stood back and watched them grow. When the volunteers would arrive for our weekly work together day, the most common greeting was “Would you look at the corn!”
When we harvested the ears in mid-October, they sparked even more conversation. The dense, long ears that were white or red doesn’t look like typical summer barbeque sweet corn. That’s because Goose corn is a type of “dent” corn (also called “field” corn) that is traditionally dried and ground into cornmeal. This means that you harvest it once the kernels have small dents in each one, revealing that they are mature and losing moisture. After we harvested the corn, we hung it in our barn to dry. During the winter we’ll scrape the kernels off their cobs, winnow it, and grind it into meal, carrying on the story of so many Appalachian farmers before us. And like them, we’ll also save about a third of the seed to plant out next year.
The story of this Goose corn extends far beyond our few short months spent with it. We received the seeds from our neighbor Jim Veteto, who directs the nonprofit Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies (AIMS), a group that works to save heirloom varieties and keep them in production. The seeds for our unique variety of Goose Corn came from Bald Mountain in the northwest corner of Yancey county, where they have been selected and planted by several generations of Yancey County settlers. Jim explained to us that for seeds to stay viable and genetically diverse, they need to be grown out every year or two. This allows them to keep growing and adapting to the conditions that vary from year to year.
By planting these seeds and saving them for future generations, Dig In! is grateful to continue the agricultural traditions of our region. We think heirloom foods represent an important part of our history that can live on through our work and create a more resilient, diverse food system. We’d like to give a big thanks to all the farmers before us who worked with this land to bring us regionally adapted varieties, to AIMS and Jim Veteto for making these seeds available to us, and to everyone who supports our work in this county!