Corn Commentary

Pseudo-Journalists, Hot Corn and the Heat Dome Monster

According to many St. Louis meteorologists, the heat dome of 2011 will relent today, finally ushering in still-hot, but not life-threatening temperatures.  In retrospect, the seemingly epic heat wave does offer some degree of humor.  It just isn’t summer in the Midwest until some crack journalist attempts to fry an egg, cook macaroni and cheese, or even pop corn on a sidewalk.

While the epic creativity of the ever-rotating crop of insightful local reporters attempting such crazy feats allows us to giggle at the heat, or at least their tired antics, for many, the heat brought about a level of panic, suffering and problems more likely to make a sane person cry.  From illness to electric bills that trigger a special sort of nausea, the heat wave wreaked havoc on what could otherwise have been a productive, enjoyable summer.

Children trapped indoors and sidelined runners aren’t the only groups stopped dead in their tracks by the blistering bubble.  Corn farmers have watched as the crop they worked late into the night to plant following this spring’s unrelenting monsoon season begins to show signs of heat stress.

While the farmers themselves can escape to the icy, dark confines of the closest movie house, corn plants must find ways to endure the heat and preserve precious moisture.  As corn plants are past the pollination stage at this point in the season, each individual plant makes a variety of small adaptations that best allow it to produce the maximum amount of viable seed possible.

As for each of us who has eschewed a morning jog or skipped an outdoor barbeque to cope with the insipid temperatures, corn plants make sacrifices to survive in these conditions.  These sacrifices, although vital to preserving the corn and to the inherent objective of spreading its own genetic material, negatively impact the crop in a number of ways that can subsequently impinge on each individual farmer’s profitability at harvest.

Just walking through a corn field, the toll heat stress takes on a plant becomes obvious.  The normally green, flat leaves that jet from the stalk have rolled in around the edges to reduce surface area, therefore preserving moisture.  Near the ground, leaves have been fired from the stalk completely and now lie in brown, crumpled piles.  The once lush, green field no longer resembles the perfect stands picturesquely surrounding the baseball diamond in “Field of Dreams.”

Heat damage affects more than the cosmetic in corn.  As the nights stay hot and days reach record highs, the plant must further shut down to preserve the seeds encasing its valuable genetic material. The small kernels from the top of the ear abort to save the more desirable brethren at the base.  Even the kernels for which much of the plant was sacrificed may not reach their maximum potential.

At harvest, these ears of corn will still be useful.  The crop will still provide food, feed or fuel depending upon its destination.  Yet, the farmer will again suffer as low test weights and diminished yields chip away at the profitability of the year’s corn crop.  With high fertilizer prices and increasingly expensive land, farmers may find the heat burning them in the pocketbook long after a chilly fall breeze begins to blow in the evenings.

Farmers know from a very young age, most often by observing as their parents and grandparents worked that same land, that every year, every day their livelihood is at the mercy of the weather.  Long after the average person’s electric bill is paid, farmers feel the impact of a long, hot summer.

So, next time a peppy freshman reporter cracks an egg onto a white hot sidewalk remember that the heat dome of 2011 will continue to loom large in the memories of many long after the holidays.  America’s family farmers toil on despite the risk because they realize the importance of producing enough corn to supply the world’s growing demand.

Say thank you by becoming more informed.  Take a moment to read a simple, short brief on how farm programs, such as those coming before Congress next year, help protect farmers from the heat and ensure a vibrant future for this key industry.  If the television station can invest in the same tired heat story year-after-year, the country should invest in the men and women who provide the food that actually ends up on a plate.