(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘agriculture

“Corn is a greedy crop, as farmers will tell you”*…

With harvest season nigh, the corn should be “as high as an elephant’s eye,” as the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song has it. Time to get that water boiling for the corn on the cob?

Sure. But most of the corn we consume isn’t on the cob, in a can, or frozen. Sweet corn is actually less than 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States. Popcorn, our third standard type of corn, is also less than 1 percent of the American corn crop.

Educators Renee Clary and James Wandersee have explored the history of corn, from the first domestication of maize about 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn.”

According to Clary and Wandersee, we should be flush with the hundreds of varieties of corn crafted by human selection over the centuries. But the United States, the world’s largest corn producer, almost exclusively grows field corn, which is also known as dent corn, or, in the futures markets, “commodity corn.” It is not delicious with butter and salt.

Commodity corn is a bit magical, however, because it can be transformed into a plethora of products. Food is still a big part of the corn equation, but indirectly. Meat, for example, is actually transmuted corn: Four-tenths of the U.S. corn crop goes to feed chicken, pigs, and cattle. And since cattle evolved as grass eaters, they have to be dosed with antibiotics because corn isn’t healthy for them.

Many processed foods are built on the back of corn. High-fructose corn syrup, much cheaper than sugar, is the most obvious of these corn-based ingredients in our food system…

Clary and Wandersee have their students survey what’s in their home pantries. There’s a lot of corn hidden in food labels. Caramel color, lecithin, citric acid, modified and unmodified starch? Corn. The same with ascorbic acid, lysine, dextrose, monoglycerides, diglycerides, maltose, maltodextrin, and MSG. Xanthan gum? Well, there’s no such thing as a xanthan gum tree.

But the corn story is even more complicated. Corn can be chemically manipulated into all sorts of unexpected uses. There’s ethanol, for instance, which is basically alcohol used as a fuel supplement.

You’ll also find corn used in the production of antibiotics; aspirin; books; charcoal briquettes; cosmetics; crayons; disposable diapers; drywall; dyes and inks; fireworks; glues; paper, and plastics. The spray cleaner Windex has at least five corn-derived components. Spark plugs, toothpaste, batteries, and running shoes can all be made with things that started out as corn, in a field, under the sun. In 2001, Goodyear introduced tires made with a starch-based filler made from corn. DuPont naturally has a corn-based synthetic fiber.

While we’re at it, Stephen King’s 1977 story “Children of the Corn” gave rise to a movie franchise starting in 1984, and there’s a new Children of the Corn movie scheduled for release next year. Corny as horror movies can be, we apparently can’t get enough of them—or of corn itself.

… all of which goes to show why, as Michael Pollan says “farmers facing lower prices have only one option if they want to be able to maintain their standard of living, pay their bills, and service their debt, and that is to produce more [corn].” Indeed, corn is the most widely grown grain crop throughout the Americas; 13 billion bushels of corn are grown in the United States alone each year (on 91.7 million acres, the largest crop in the U.S.).

The history of corn, from the domestication of maize 10,000 years ago to today’s ubiquitous “commodity corn,” to teach about biodiversity… and its lack: “Corn is everywhere!

* Michael Pollan

###

As we give a shuck, we might send artificially-sweetened birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755. An engineer and one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States, he was a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling, and steam power. He created the first continuous production line (the first fully automated industrial process), the first high-pressure steam engine, and the first (albeit crude) amphibious vehicle and American automobile.

But given the subject of today’s post, we might note that he also created the automatic corn mill.

source

Written by LW

September 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Agriculture changes the landscape more than anything else we do”*…

 

agriculture

From the USDA, a (zoomable) map of which crops are grown where in the U.S.: “Cropscape.”

* Michael Pollan

###

As we contemplate cultivation, we might note that today is National Animal Crackers Day.  Small crackers/cookies baked in the shape of animals, they were imported from England to the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century. then produced domestically by a number of bakers starting in the 1870s.

But by the turn of the century, several of those bakeries had merged to become the National Biscuit Company, which began to produce a branded version, “Barnum’s Animals,” featuring animals from the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  While earlier animal cracker were sold to merchants in bulk (to be sold to customers from barrels), Nabisco’s were packaged in a colorful, circus-themed box with a string that allowed it to be hung from a Christmas tree.  Initially retailing for 5 cents a package, they were– and remain– a huge hit.

300px-Barnum's_animals_examples

Some of “Barnum’s Animals”

 

Written by LW

April 18, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The farmer works the soil; the agriculturist works the farmer”*…

 

agriculture

 

Like the wheat barons of the 1870s who lived on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, [Stewart] Resnick isn’t of this place. He’s never driven a tractor or opened an irrigation valve. He’s never put a dusty boot on the neck of a shovel and dug down into the soil. He wouldn’t know one of his Valencia orange groves from one of his Washington navel orange groves. The land to him isn’t real. It’s an economy of scale on a scale no one’s ever tried here. He grew up in New Jersey, where his father ran a bar. He came to California in the 1950s to remake himself. Welcome to the club. He remade himself into a graduate of the UCLA law school, a cleaner of Los Angeles buildings, a vendor of security alarms, a seller of flowers in a pot, a minter of Elvis plates and Princess Diana dolls, a bottler of Fiji Island water, a farmer of San Joaquin Valley dirt. He purchased his first 640-acre section in the late 1970s and kept adding more sections of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and citrus until he stretched the lines of agriculture like no Californian before him.

At age 81, he’s gotten so big, he doesn’t know how big. Last time he checked, he told me he owned 180,000 acres of California. That’s 281 square miles. He is irrigating 121,000 of those acres. This doesn’t count the 21,000 acres of grapefruits and limes he’s growing in Texas and Mexico. He uses more water than any other person in the West. His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, consumes 587,000 acre-feet.

Resnick’s billions rely on his ability to master water, sun, soil, and even bees. When he first planted seedless mandarins in the valley 17 years ago, the bees from the citrus orchards around him were flying into his groves, pollinating his flowers, and putting seeds into the flesh of his fruit. He told his neighbors to alter the flight of the bees or he’d sue them for trespassing. The farmers responded that the path of a bee wasn’t something they could supervise, and they threatened to sue him back. The dispute over the “no fly zone” was finally resolved by the invention of a netting that Resnick sheathes around his mandarins each spring. The plastic unfurls across the grove like a giant roll of Saran Wrap. No bee can penetrate the shield, and his mandarins remain seedless.

The control Resnick exercises inside his $4.5 billion privately held company does relinquish to one person: his wife, Lynda, vice chairman and co-owner, the “Pomegranate Queen,” as she calls herself. She is the brander of the empire, the final word on their Super Bowl ads, the creator of product marketing. There’s “Cheat Death” for their antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice [POM] and “Get Crackin’ ” for their pistachios [Wonderful] and “Untouched by Man” for their Fiji water. A husband and wife sharing the reins is rare for corporate America, rarer still for industrial agriculture. He commands his realm, and she commands hers, and he takes care to mind the line. “If he sticks even a toe onto her turf,” says a former business partner, “she gives him a look that sends him right back.”

Together, the Resnicks have wedded the valley’s hidebound farming culture with L.A.’s celebrity culture. They don’t do agribusiness. Rather, they say, they’re “harvesting health and happiness around the world through our iconic consumer brands.” Their crops aren’t crops but heart-healthy snacks and life-extending elixirs. Stewart refers to the occasional trek between Lost Hills and Beverly Hills — roughly 140 miles — as a “carpetbagger’s distance”…

Stewart Resnick’s domain is the densest planting of almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates on earth, making him the biggest “farmer” in the U.S. and the biggest irrigated “farmer” in the world: “A Kingdom from Dust.”

* Eugene Ware

###

As we contemplate concentration, we might send well-organized birthday greetings to Antoine Laurent de Jussieu; he was born on this date in 1748.  A botanist, he is best remembered as the first to publish a natural classification of flowering plants; much of his system– which was, in part, based on unpublished work by his uncle, Bernard de Jussieu— remains in use today.

220px-Jussieu_Antoine-Laurent_de_1748-1836 source

 

Written by LW

April 12, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I vant to eat your cereal!”*…

 

cereal-01-1320x880

Gabe Fonseca arranges some of the 200 cereal boxes, which are affixed by magnets to sheet metal and on display in his Los Angeles apartment

 

At the end of a week during which stock market meltdowns and a spreading global pandemic have most of us feeling queasier than the thought of a “cheesy mashed potato or pot roast cereal,” we could all do with an emotional palate-cleanser, a Proustian experience that takes us back to a sweeter time,  Herewith, the tale of cereal box collector Gabe Fonseca, who traveled all the way from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to visit the General Mills archives in search of his white whale, a box of Buñuelitos.  But as becomes clear, when the object of one’s obsession – breakfast cereal – has origins as a dubious cure for masturbation, things are destined to get a little odd…

The world’s most obsessive breakfast-food fans demonstrate just how far humans will go for the sweet taste of nostalgia: “Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal.”

Via Read This Thing.

* Count Chocula

###

As we heap on the sugar, we might spare a thought for Robert C. Baker; he died on this date in 2006.  An inventor and professor at Cornell, he is credited with more than 40 poultry, turkey, and cold cut innovations, making him the “George Washington Carver of poultry.”  Surely the best known of his creations is what he originally called “Cornell Chicken” (though he developed it while a graduate student at Penn State); we know it as the “chicken nugget.”  He published it as unpatented academic work while at Cornell in the 1950; McDonald’s patented their formulation in 1979, threw the mighty weight of their marketing and retail machine behind it…  and the rest is (greasy) history.  For his contributions to the poultry sciences, Baker is a member of the American Poultry Hall of Fame.

bakerRobert_kiosk-banner source

 

Written by LW

March 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“He who controls the spice controls the universe”*

 

Spices

 

Spices were among the first engines of globalization, not in the modern sense of a world engulfed by ever-larger corporations but in the ways that we began to become aware, desirous even, of cultures other than our own. Such desire, unchecked, once led to colonialism. After Dutch merchants nearly tripled the price of black pepper, the British countered in 1600 by founding the East India Company, a precursor to modern multinationals and the first step toward the Raj. In the following decades, the Dutch sought a monopoly on cloves, which once had grown nowhere but the tropical islands of Ternate and Tidore in what is today Indonesia, and then in 1652 introduced the scorched-earth policy known as extirpation, felling and burning tens of thousands of clove trees. This was both an ecological disaster and horribly effective: For more than a century, the Dutch kept supplies low and prices high, until a Frenchman (surnamed, in one of history’s inside jokes, Poivre, or “pepper”) arranged a commando operation to smuggle out a few clove-tree seedlings. Among their ultimate destinations were Zanzibar and Pemba, off the coast of East Africa, which until the mid-20th century dominated the world’s clove market.

The craving for spices still brings the risk of exploitation, both economically, as farmers in the developing world see only a sliver of the profits, and in the form of cultural appropriation. In the West, we’re prone to taking what isn’t ours and acting as if we discovered it, conveniently forgetting its history and context. Or else we reduce it to caricature, cooing over turmeric-stained golden lattes while invoking the mystic wisdom of the East. At the same time, a world without borrowing and learning from our neighbors would be pallid and parochial — a world, in effect, without spice…

From turmeric in Nicaragua to cardamom in Guatemala, nonnative ingredients are redefining trade routes and making unexpected connections across lands: “How Spices Have Made, and Unmade, Empires.”

* Frank Herbert, Dune

###

As we go deep on dash, we might recall that this is National Buffet Day.  The concept of the buffet arose in mid 17th century France, when gentleman callers would arrive unexpectedly at the homes of ladies they wanted to woo.  It was popularized in 18th century France and quickly spread throughout Europe.  The all-you-can-eat buffet made its restaurant debut in 1946, when it was introduced by Vegas hotel manager Herb MacDonald.  By the mid-1960s, virtually every casino in Las Vegas sported its own variation.  Today, of course, buffets are regularly available not only in any/every Vegas casino, but also in thousands of Indian and Chinese restaurants and ubiquitous chains of “family restaurants.”

buffet source

 

 

 

 

Written by LW

January 2, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: