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Fall harvest in Washington County is all about corn

September 10, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Well, it is harvest time in the Great Valley, and when it comes to fall harvest, can you say corn?

Corn is the name used in the U.S., Canada and Australia for the grain maize or Zea mays, which is native to Central and North America.

In much of the English-speaking world, the term “corn” is simply a generic term for the major cereal crop of a given country, such as barley, oats, rye and wheat.

But corn is not just for feeding livestock or decoration. As a matter of fact, the notion of wrapping one’s lamppost is completely a modern idea.

In some ways, it is a nostalgic harkening back to an earlier time.

Corn shocks standing in cornfields were once a common sight during harvest. This method of drying corn was replaced once mechanical harvesters appeared on the scene. Today, corn shocks are more commonly seen in fall displays that might also include pumpkins, gourds and straw bales.

A kernel of corn is the seed of the plant and has four major parts: starch, fiber, oil and protein. Corn is typically measured in bushels, and one bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds. That’s for shelled corn (after the husks and cobs are removed).

The corn you eat is called sweet corn. Only 1 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is sweet corn. Most of the corn grown in this area is field corn and is used to feed animals, fuel cars, and is also found in 4,000 other products found at the grocery store.

If you don’t believe me, check the items in your cabinets.

Corn is commonly processed using two methods — dry milling and refining. 

Dry milling begins by cleaning the corn and tempering it to 20 percent moisture, then removing the oil-containing germ and most of the fiber. The remainder, mostly starch and protein, is dried, sifted and ground into many different sizes of grits, cornmeal and corn flour.

Besides being a breakfast staple in the South, grits are used in beer, corn flakes and snack foods.

Cornmeal is utilized in cereals, corn bread, corn muffins, fritters, hush puppies, pancake mixes and spoon bread. And corn flour is contained in numerous products, such as baby foods, breading, coatings and batters, dusting for pizzas, English muffins, doughnuts and pet food.

Refining or wet milling results in oil, starches, sweeteners and fermentation products. Almost everyone has eaten something fried or made with corn oil.

Cornstarch is used in adhesives, and as a thickener for sauces and gravy, just to name a few. 

There are corn sweeteners, which are found in thousands of products.

Then there is popcorn. Americans consume 52 quarts per man, woman and child each year. Approximately 70 percent of that is purchased at retail stores in raw and popped form, and eaten at home. The remainder can be found almost anyplace associated with fun, food and fitness, including movie theaters, sporting events, entertainment arenas, amusement parks and other recreational centers.

I bet you thought I forgot about ornamental corn. These are the multicolored items that adorn many a door, lamppost and pumpkin patch.

I hope you now have a great appreciation for corn, and perhaps you will be more patient as the slow-moving combines lumber between fields during harvest season.

 Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.

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