CMN harvesting corn for study through USDA program

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Rebecca Edler, left, sustainability coordinator for the College of Menominee Nation, shows a cob with dark red and purple kernels to Jamie Patton, northeast regional outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension office, during a harvest of corn that took place Friday at the college’s Sustainability Development Institute. Many of the healthier cobs had a variety of colors.

It’s harvest season in Wisconsin, and for those farmers that grow corn, there is a lot of golden color waiting to be discovered underneath the husks.

Volunteers and staff at the College of Menominee Nation found some of that gold as they harvested some of the corn at the Sustainable Development Institute but the Bear Island Flint corn had more red, orange, blue and purple tints to it. Some cobs had multiple colors, and even some of the individual kernels had more than one color.

The corn harvested from the SDI is for more than human consumption. It is the second harvest in a multi-year research project the college is engaging in through funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Dr. David Overstreet, archaeologist with the Menominee Nation, found ancient garden beds in the forest on the reservation years ago, according to Rebecca Edler, the college’s sustainability coordinator. Those garden beds found remnants of corn and additives like river muck and biochar, burnt wood that is worked into the soil. He called the soil additives “soil amendments.”

With the discovery, the college is trying to recreate the gardening techniques of Menominee ancestors. Sixteen plots were planted with four rows of corn in each plot, with one row fertilized with biochar, one row with fish emulsion (an alternative to river muck), one row with today’s synthetic fertilizer, and the final row with nothing added to the soil.

“We amended the soils and planted a corn that’s a traditional corn — the Bear Island Flint corn,” Edler said. “Once it was planted, we monitored the growth and the yield of the corn, and now we’ll see what the corn looks like.”

Dolly Potts, a SDI intern who focused on the Menominee traditional side of the project, noted that the Bear Island Flint corn was selected because it is a corn that can be grown in a colder climate and fits in well with Wisconsin’s shorter growing season. Bear Island Flint corn takes about 85-90 days to mature.

“It’s a sweet corn, but it’s not an eating corn. It’s not to roast and eat,” Potts said. “It was ground into flour and added to soups. You can make bread out of it, too.”

She added that the Menominee and other tribes ground up their corn as a way to sustain themselves during the winter months.

Besides the consumption aspect, Potts also makes dolls with the corn husks for the Menominee youth and uses some of the colorful kernels to make corn jewelry.

“Natives use every part of the plant. That’s important to us,” Potts said. “We don’t waste anything.”

Adam Schulz, another SDI intern, handled the more scientific aspects of the research this year. Once the traditional style of planting by hand took place, Schulz used current instruments to do daily tests on moisture and soil temperatures.

“We’d do one test (of temperature and moisture) at two inches and another at eight inches,” Schulz said. “We wanted to the test the soil at the higher and lower levels across all four treatments.”

The project needs to be handled over three or four years to get accurate scientific results, according to Schulz. He noted that nutrients already existing in the soil will be sapped in that time, so that is when the amendments will truly be a primary source for growing corn plants.

“We’re looking at whether the leaves are thicker and the stalks are thicker over the various amendments,” Schulz said, explaining that some evidence in 2017 pointed to the fish emulsion yielding thicker plants, but the kernels were larger in the plots with biochar.

The harvest was not without some bad cobs, ravaged by the birds during the summer. Also, the drought over the summer, combined with the late start to the growing season caused by the April blizzard, yielded some casualties. This year’s crop was planted in early June, according to Schulz.

“When the ground gets warm enough to sustain crops, that’s when this goes in,” Schulz said.

Schulz is also looking at the corn’s biomass — the husks, the stalks, the roots and the cobs once the kernels are removed. He noted there are signs that farmers are keeping more corn biomass at the fields to help with growing in following seasons.

“A lot of farmers, contemporarily, used to pull it out and they’d bundle it and sell it for holiday decorations or burn it elsewhere,” Schulz said. “Today’s agriculture is moving away from that; they’re moving toward no-till. They’ll leave some of the corn stalk and planting seeds around it because they’re starting to see and understand that the nutrients can go back into the ground if you leave some of the biomass behind.”

The grant provided by the USDA also allowed the college to set up a soils lab, and institute staff received help from the University of Wisconsin-Extension to learn how to do pH and fertility tests, according to Schulz.

Edler said she was pleased to see how well the Western style of research and study combined so well with the Menominee traditions and cultural practices.

“We’re learning from the past to move into the future,” Edler said. “The corn is beautiful.”