Crop Summary: History (in AZ)
Corn (maize) has historically been a staple foodstuff throughout the Americas, with a long history of cultivation throughout the Southwest and parts of Arizona. Carbon dating indicates that forms of corn have been growing in the Southwestern US since 2100 BCE! A hardy crop, this early variety of corn grew in parts of the Santa Cruz Valley of the Upper Sonoran Desert, in the Gila Valley along the Mogollon Rim, and at a site north of Black Mesa (Source: The Diffusion of Maize to the Southwestern United States and its Impact. Centuries later, corn remained in cultivation by groups of the Anasazi, Hohokam, and Salado.
Today, corn is still farmed in Arizona. On the Colorado Plateau, corn farming remains a large part of the cultural identity of the Hopi people. Though conditions are particularly difficult for widespread cultivation, the Hopi employ a dry farming method of planting seeds deep and spaced well apart, which is particularly conducive to growing a unique blue corn variety that is better suited to the conditions of the Colorado Plateau. However, the number of Hopi farmers is dwindling as crop yields decline due to chronic water shortages. It is estimated that only about 80 Hopi families regularly plant corn, a number that has decreased by half in 25 years.
Commercial corn is grown in other parts of Arizona, too. Arizona’s 2012 Farm Census identified 232 farms that produce a total of 529 acres of sweet corn, all harvested for the fresh market. This yield, too, has declined dramatically, and is just roughly 11% of the corn yield reported in 2007. However, a number of farms around the state still produce corn that is available at on-site farm stands or farmers markets, including:
- Sunrise Dairy (suppliers of Taylor Sweet Corn Festival)
These farms favor more conventional cultivation methods, with some surprising innovations. For instance, when corn is close to harvest, Freeman’s Family Farm outside Camp Verde uses air cannons to make noises that deter birds and other hungry animals from digging into the ripened ears.
The corn harvest, associated nationwide with the fresh, sweet bounty of summer produce, is heartily celebrated in Arizona with two fresh corn festivals, the Camp Verde Corn Fest in Camp Verde (mid-July) and the Taylor Sweet Corn Festival in Taylor, near Snowflake (early September). The Camp Verde Cornfest, documented in the video below, features family fun and games, a farmers’ market, birding tours on the Verde River, and a mountain of freshly harvested, perfectly roasted sweet corn grown at Freeman Family Farms. The Taylor Sweet Corn Festival is accompanied by a parade and a rodeo, with tender sweet corn supplied by a variety of the area’s farmers as the centerpiece. Both events provide a delicious, sun-drenched opportunity to celebrate Arizona’s produce during a season that is too extreme for less hardy crops.
Growing Corn at Home
Corn thrives in sunny areas and prefers deep, loamy soil. Optimal temperature for cultivation is 60-75 degrees F, with corn that matures during cooler nights producing kernels with a higher sugar content.
In Maricopa County, farmers plant sweet corn from February-March for yields that last May-July. Northern Arizona harvest season extends as late as September. Depending on the variety, it takes between 65-90 days to harvest corn. For the backyard gardner, the most successful crops mature quickly (under 75 days is thought to be a quick maturation). According to the gardening blog Southwest Victory Gardens, popular varieties include Yuma Yellow and Hopi Blue, both available at Native Seeds SEARCH. Another tip for the backyard gardner is to plant a pole bean variety such as tepary beans (a traditional food of the Tohono O’odham) to provide extra nitrogen to the corn plants.
Fresh sweet corn combines with cheeses, bacon and jalapenos for a delicious side dish or appetizer with a mouth-pleasing medley of taste.
- 3 c. fresh sweet corn
- 2/3 c. cornmeal
- 1/4 c. shredded Cheddar
- 1/4 c. cream cheese
- 2 scallions, sliced
- 2 slices cooked bacon, chopped
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 jalapeño, finely diced
- kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lime, divided
- Sour cream, for serving
- In a medium bowl, combine corn, cornmeal, cheddar, cream cheese, scallions, bacon, eggs, the juice of half a lime, and jalapeño. Stir to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste. Using your hands, form the mixture into small patties.
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, fry the patties until they’re golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes per side.
- Garnish each with sour cream and a squeeze of lime, if desired.