Yesterday I drove upcountry to Richardson Farms to grind corn to feed our animals. It’s a messy job; you shovel a ton of shelled corn into a grinder and about half of it coats your entire body with a fine dust that blows out from the top. This was the last of last year’s corn, stored in the round Butler buildings that rise up from the flatlands throughout Milam County. This year’s corn dominates the land every which way you look, tasseled regiments marching into the horizon and soon to be filling up the coffers of commodity farmers. Corn is a cash crop like never before, having more than doubled in price and pushed soy and cotton off the grid. Today, the combines were out in force harvesting rye and wheat but in a month or so they will be outnumbered by corn pickers and the yellow streams of hard corn will flow once again into the empty storage bins.
After I bagged the corn and loaded my van, Jim Richardson asked me if I was interested in picking sweet corn for our market. The sweet corn looked stunted and tame beside the hard corn fields, but how sweet it was to the taste and there was something essentially summer in hearing their ears snap from the stalks. Jim farms organically, so that meant there was lots of Johnson grass to content with. And corn earworms. A single adult female can deposit 3,000 eggs. Larvae mature in a few weeks, burrow underground and pupate. No wonder not a single ear emerges bug-free. But these are chemical-free ears, too, so this is the trade-off: bugs instead of pesticides. Jim grew up in sweet corn country and watched the planes dropping chemicals on the corn; a half dozen applications throughout its lifecycle. The chemicals drift in the wind. You don’t want to live near conventional sweet corn fields.
I picked 400 ears and piled them onto my bags of feed corn. Imagine an egg: the whites were the bags and the yolk was the pile of fresh sweet corn. As I drove home, through all that green corn yet to be harvested, all of it sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, I laughed aloud as I realized something: making the trip with me were at least 400 worms. And I would have to deal with them as all organic farmers must. Some of our customers recognize these worms as living proof of our natural farming practices and hardly blink an eye when they find them curled up inside the leaves. Others cannot bear the sight of them; they have grown up with seemingly perfect corn and this blemish, this wiggly intruder, seems so unnatural. For their benefit, we shuck the corn, break off the ruined tips and send the pile — worms and all — to the chicken pen. Chickens know a treat when they see it. They fight over the worms. And the worms, along with the weeds and greens they eat, contribute to that transformation of pale yellow yolks into rich dark yolks, which sell for $5 a dozen. The beta carotines and licopenes, in effect, turn a pale high-noon sun into a burnt-orange evening sun. An ear worm, you might say, becomes a stomach worm, one way or another.