Corn: A Love Story,
From Seed to Market

An encounter with Indian corn during a chestnut festival years ago forever shattered Anthony Boutard's notion of corn as “an industrial grain.” Boutard M.F. '89 now grows this nutritious and flavorful corn variety at his organic farm in northwestern Oregon.
anthony boutard corn grower
Photo courtesy of Anthony Boutard
Anthony Boutard
Anthony Boutard loves corn. But not the type of corn most Americans are familiar with: On his 144-acre organic farm in northwestern Oregon, Boutard M.F. ‘89 grows a variety of corn called 8-row flint corn. Unlike the variety that he refers to as “industrialized hybrid yellow” corn, now ubiquitous across the Midwest, 8-row flint corn is colorful, bursting with deep maroons, purples, and blues.
 
“They’re spectacularly beautiful, they are nourishing, healthy, much more richly flavored than any cornmeal you can get in the grocery, and they have many uses,” says Boutard, who sells the corn, as well as his other crops, directly to restaurants and at a local farmer’s market.
 
Boutard, who grows about four tons of corn per year at Ayers Creek Farm, says flint corn actually has a much older tradition in the U.S. than the now widely cultivated yellow corn. And it is higher in mineral and protein content. Its name refers to the kernels, which are harder than the yellow corn grown for feeding livestock or the sweet corn eaten off the cob. Long before it was cultivated by European settlers in the New World, it was grown by Native Americans. (It’s called “Indian corn” for a reason.)
 
His love of corn inspired Boutard to write a book, Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate, which tells the history of corn in the Americas, as well as some corn biology and his own story as a grower. In the book, he explains that an encounter with colorful ears of Indian corn at a chestnut festival helped dislodge his own negative associations with corn as “an industrial grain.”
 
While he loved sweet corn as a child, he developed “a deep appreciation for more mature corn” as he got older.
 
Boutard says his time at F&ES gave him “a deeper appreciation of polycultures, seeing the farm as a part of nature rather than a purely human effort where nature is an unwelcome intruder.” His farm incorporates many different types of landscape, including a 20-acre oak savannah he considers “the heart of the farm,” where red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls nest. He and his wife, Carol, converted another 40 acres “back to a beautiful perennial wetland.”
 
Some people might see the farm as a “weedy and unkempt enterprise,” Boutard admits. But he doesn’t see that as a problem. In fact, he sees the “rough” and diverse landscape as the key to a successful organic farm. The owls keep the rodent populations in check, but there are enough rodents to dig holes that are then colonized by bumblebees, which act as pollinators on the farm. And the lack of pesticides lets spiders thrive, which then keep pest insects at bay. “With luck, everything’s in balance,” he says.


Though corn may be his favorite, Boutard also grows about 75 other crops. Berries, root vegetables, and nuts all show up at the farmer’s market where he and his wife set up shop every Sunday.
 
Boutard loves selling at the market. The days are long — twelve or thirteen hours, from loading up the van in the morning to returning home at night — but Boutard enjoys the chance to be a thespian: “You’re an actor, you’re selling stuff, you’re sort of hamming it up,” he says. He also thinks it’s important for the people who have grown the food to be the ones selling it. “We lack the sex appeal of scantily-clad teenagers, but we have a certain gravitas in having our presence there and talking to people about the food,” Boutard says.
The corn grown at Ayers Creek relies largely on human labor instead of petroleum and chemicals.
— Anthony Boutard
Being at the market also provides him insights into the current American conception of corn. For a certain segment of the population, he says, corn inspires nightmare visions of vast, pesticide-covered monocultures — similar to the associations about corn that he once harbored. He recalls the first farmer’s market when he sold the flint corn. “A passerby recoiled in horror from the package, told me corn is bad and that she would never buy anything with corn in it,” Boutard says. “In her eyes, I was raising the spawn of the devil.”
 
On another occasion, a man accused him of “something akin to moral turpitude” because the corn Boutard grows is much lower-yielding than the corn typically grown in the Midwest, and thus was an inefficient use of farmland in a hungry world.
 
What the man failed to realize, Boutard says, is that his 60 or so bushels per acre feed more people than a corn-belt acre yielding 200 bushels since his corn is consumed directly by people, and Corn Belt corn usually goes to feed livestock.
 
“In fact, the corn grown at Ayers Creek relies largely on human labor instead of petroleum and chemicals,” Boutard says. “The income from the corn feeds the families that work in the field, rather than the bottom line of petroleum and chemical companies.”

About the Author

Geoffrey Giller will graduate from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in 2014. The former editor of SAGE Magazine, his writing has appeared in Scientific AmericanAudubon Magazine and Amherst Magazine.
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PUBLISHED: February 24, 2014
 

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