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Corn to be wild: Southwest celebrates cultivation

After a 4,000-year history of growing it in Arizona soil, the connection between corn, culture, and community took center stage recently.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

May 25, 2022

4 Min Read
Corn has played an integral part in the lives of indigenous peoples in the West.University of Arizona Extension

The corn that is eaten around the world today got its start in Mexico centuries ago before ending up north-of-the-border in what is now the American Southwest, to wit, the Arizona-Sonora borderland.

“For people in Meso-America (Mexico), maize is not a crop, but a deep cultural symbol intrinsic to daily life, domesticated from a grass called teocinte some 10,000 years ago.  It has been referred to as humanity’s greatest agronomic achievement,” according to Cultural Survival magazine.  Corn has long been considered a form of food security.

After a 4,000-year history of growing it in Arizona soil, the connection between corn, culture, and community took center stage recently in an inaugural Pueblos del Maiz Fiesta sponsored by Tucson City of Gastronomy.

The month-long party, also celebrated in Texas and Mexico, highlighted corn cultivation across the globe with its cultural and culinary impact making maize one of the most important crops for human civilization as an agricultural staple for both humans and animals.

“No disrespect to the other sisters of Three Sisters fame (squash and beans), but all four cities involved decided that corn would get the focus as it was something central to the food heritages and cuisines in all four cities,” said Dr. Jonathan Mabry, Executive Director, Tucson City of Gastronomy.  “Maybe we’ll expand the concept and the range of foods going forward, but corn wore the crown this year.”

An integral part of tribal culture

Corn has played an integral part in the lives of indigenous peoples in the West.  Some tribes, like Arizona’s Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache traditionally use corn pollen for blessings requesting protection, foregiveness, and happiness.  One tribal treatise on the subject reads, “Corn Mother fills our table with hearty kernels turned into bread, tortillas, tamales, and soups.”

To the Cherokee, the roots go all the way back --- “In the beginning, Creator made Mother Earth.  Then came Grandmother Corn.”

Open-field corn planting in Arizona generally takes place in February and March and for the native peoples of the Tohono O’odham Nation, their corn is ready for harvest in 60 days.  In the olden days, it was grown from the arid land of the O’odham (Pimas altos) in the north to the high Sierra of the peoples who lived along the Mayo and Yaqui Rivers (Pimas bajos) in Sonora.

“This corn is truly a star,” reports Native Seeds/SEARCH.  “Variety accessions from Tohono O’odham and Akimel Oodham peoples produce fast-growing, short-stature corn that goes from planted seed to harvestable green corn in two months when planted in the heat and humidity of the monsoon season.”  Ears,  generally six-to-ten inches long with white kernels, are roasted and turned into masa.  (Watch a short video on planting 60-day corn.)

Rows of corn are still integral to the O’odham and are found at the San Xavier Co-op Farm where those ears are grown, harvested, roasted, and otherwise processed.

To tribal members, corn is a part of their Himdag or Way of Life that includes respect for the land, animals, water, and plants.  They take pride in noting: “We grow crops that were developed by those ‘Who Have Gone Before’.”

Pueblo del Maiz celebration

At the Pueblos del Maiz celebration at San Xavier Co-op Farm, the star was essentially missing this year as the O’odham 60-day-corn was still in the ground and weeks away from being ready for picking.

“We had a field blessing last week just before planting five acres,” says Chris Kinsley, farm marketing coordinator.  Alfalfa hay is the predominant crop on the 900 acres farmed by 40+ workers who also grow chiles and maintain an orchard with apples, peaches, and pomegranates.  All products are certified naturally grown with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

“When it’s time to harvest the Gai wa sa, we’ll gather the corn, roast it, dry it, and grind it into product for sale to make things like tortillas and tamales.   When we have a surplus, we invite community members to come to the field and harvest ears for family consumption.  Any excess product is packaged for sale to the general public from our on-site farm store.”

So while Iowa gets the trophy for large production --- 2021 USDA NASS figures show 12,900,000 acres planted with records broken for 205 bushels per acre average for grain corn --- from one of the border cities where corn was born, UNESCO reports: “The cultural and culinary impacts of maiz continue to spread across physical and cultural boundaries --- its nutritional, economic, and cultural values proving it to be one of the most important crops for human civilization, maiz is woven into the fabric of modern society.”

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