Learn how corn goes from a field to your home.
By: Liz Froment
For most of us, getting food on our table is a matter of going to the grocery store, picking out what's needed and heading home. But if you don't take the time to think about how your favorite farm crops are harvested, you might not realize the complexity of the process.
With summer just around the corner, you may be eagerly looking forward to corn on the cob—sweet and delicious. But how does one of your go-to hot-weather dishes get from the farm to your plate?
Fast Facts About Corn
Corn is the top crop grown by farmers in the United States. However, only a tiny percentage all the corn grown across the country is sweet corn, the cob that ends up at your summer barbecue.
The vast majority of corn grown is for feeding livestock, ethanol production or other uses in manufacturing—creating everything from crayons to soda. This type of corn is known as field corn.
Now, it's not just a matter of pulling a few cobs out of a field and calling it sweet corn. Sweet corn gets picked much earlier in the growing process, just 20 days after the silk—the fine thread-like fibers that pop out of the top of an ear—first appears. So, the corn you eat with your burgers is immature corn, whereas field corn is fully ripened and dried out.
Here's one last fun fact about corn, each piece of silk on a cob represents one kernel. In general, your average ear of corn will have about 800 kernels across 16 rows.
Where Is Corn Grown?
You can actually find corn growing on every continent except Antarctica. However, the Midwest is the largest corn-growing region in the U.S. In 2018, the value of the corn grown in this region was worth nearly $50 billion dollars.
Iowa is the country's number one producer of corn, followed closely by Illinois. Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana round out the top five. So, chances are the next time you pop open a can of corn, it came from this region of the country.
Farm to Table
All corn grows from one single kernel; each stalk produces two ears of corn. Farmers plant corn in late April to early May, the growing process takes anywhere from around two to three months.
Field corn is generally ready for picking in late summer or early fall. This corn is harvested, then inspected and dried out before it's stored in a grain elevator. When ready, farmers ship off to mills to get processed.
There the corn gets manufactured into all sorts of other items. Each kernel is split into various parts to create specific foods or goods. For example, the germ or hull of a kernel are mostly used to create livestock feed. While the grit is the primary ingredient in your morning bowl of corn flakes.
Sweet corn is often planted to take advantage of the surge in interest around the Fourth of July each year.
Once the corn is ready, it's harvested in less than a day. Farmers have to go through each ear by hand before packing them up. This is because there are strict U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations on corn. To qualify as USDA Grade #1 Fancy Sweet Corn, each ear is at least six inches long and two inches in diameter with no damage.
Most corn doesn't make the cut. The ears not classified as Grade #1 might qualify for lower grade levels, get used for livestock feed, replanted or saved for other types of food.
Once ready, time is of the essence. The ears are boxed up, loaded on pallets and taken to a cooling station. Warm corn starts losing that sugar which makes sweet corn so tasty. So the pallets are put on ice to reverse the warming process as soon as possible after harvest. From there, the corn is shipped off to grocery stores. Sweet corn can go from a field to your plate in as little as two days.
The next time you're at the grocery store picking up some corn, think about how the food chain brought it right into your hands.
Liz Froment is a content marketing writer and strategist with a focus towards insurance, real estate and finance.