Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas – From Farm to Fork

It’s always good to have a few good recipes ready for your home meal rotation. Here’s a great one that’s simple to prepare, and yields plenty of food!


  • 4 c cooked, shredded chicken
  • 16 oz sour cream
  • 2 cans cream of chicken soup
  • 1/2 c onion, chopped
  • 1/2 c green pepper, chopped
  • 1 can green chilies
  • 1 lb Monterey jack cheese, shredded
  • 1 lb Colby cheese, shredded
  • 2 packages tortillas
  • 1 can enchilada sauce

Start by cooking and shredding your chicken. I like to do this in the slow cooker overnight, so I can assemble the enchiladas in the morning and they can be ready to pop in the oven as soon as I get home from work!

After that, combine all ingredients (except the tortillas, enchilada sauce, and shredded cheese) and mix well. Put some of the mixture in the bottom of your pan. Fill your tortillas with the chicken mixture and some shredded cheese. When the pan is full, top with the can of enchilada sauce and shredded cheese. Pop in the oven at 300 for 30-40 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling.

This recipe is great for several reasons. First, it’s delicious. Second, the ingredients come from all over the place. When you make a recipe like this, it’s incredible to think about all of the farms and businesses that inadvertently cooperated to give you this great meal.

Our main ingredient in this recipe is the chicken. Chickens give us two main products: meat and eggs. However, it’s not the same types of chickens that are raised for both. Here in Iowa, we have lots of laying hens that are used for egg production. These tend to be breeds of chickens that have white feathers and lay white, clean-looking eggs. The chickens raised for meat are called broilers. They live in different kinds of barns, and tend to be raised in different parts of the country.

This recipe also has a substantial amount of dairy products. We have different types of shredded cheese and sour cream in this recipe that all come from dairy cows. Like chickens, we get multiple products from cattle (meat and milk, primarily) that come from different types of cattle (beef and dairy cattle). Dairy cattle are raised to produce milk, which can be used to make our sour cream, cheeses, yogurt, ice cream, and more. Different breeds of dairy cattle can produce milk with different amounts of protein and fat, which can lend itself better to different end products. So the milk from one dairy farm might be better for ice cream, and the milk from another dairy farm might be better for fluid milk. Neat, huh?

We also use quite a bit of vegetables in this recipe. Onions, peppers, and tomatoes are all considered vegetables in a dietetic sense, but tomatoes are commonly known to be a fruit botanically! California grows a bulk of our vegetable crops, partially because their mild climate allows them to grow crops for more of the calendar year than we can in the Midwest. Since many fruit and vegetable crops are delicate and take a trained eye, lots of farm labor including harvesting is done manually. For more information and data on our fruit and vegetable production and imports, check out this article.

Lastly, this recipe calls for a couple of processed food items. We use cream of chicken soup, enchilada sauce, and tortillas. Pre-made food items like these started gaining in popularity in the mid-20th century, as women began entering the workforce, but were still responsible for maintaining the home and supper schedule. Time-saving goods like these were – and are – a lifesaver for the busy parent. Goods like these tend to have one or two key ingredients, like chicken stock (cream of chicken soup), tomato sauce (enchilada sauce), and wheat flour (tortillas), in addition to stabilizers, flavorings, and other additives formulated to increase both flavor and safety.

Watch the video below to see how to make this yummy recipe on your own!



Agriculture 101: Specialty Crops

Iowa is well known for corn, soybean, and livestock production. Iowa is consistently the top producing state of corn, eggs, and pork, and the first or second ranked state in soybeans.  (Our neighbor to the east, Illinois, also produces a lot of soybeans.)  Iowa is also usually in the top 10 for the amount of turkeys, cattle, oats, alfalfa hay, milk goats, sheep and lambs raised here.

Although most of Iowa’s farm land is used for row crops and livestock, what is grown here is much more diverse than meets the eye. Specialty crops are big in Iowa, too!

Specialty crops are defined in law as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.”  So, a specialty crop is defined by what it is, not by how commonly it is grown in an area.  Crops considered specialty crops in Iowa are the same as those considered specialty crops in California or Florida.

California’s moderate climate, long growing season, and fertile soil enables farmers to grow over 200 crops, many of them year round.  Iowa’s short growing season and extreme high and low temperatures makes limits the number and amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts and horticultural crops grown here.

Even though our weather provides a challenge, Iowa’s specialty crop industry is strong and growing.   Here’s just a brief look at a few specialty crops grown here.

  • IMG_1189Christmas Trees.  Most fresh Christmas trees are sold within two weeks after Thanksgiving, but growing them takes 6-12 years and requires year-round work to maintain.  A typical Christmas Tree Farm in Iowa is 3 to 8 acres in size. Most farms sell trees by the “choose and harvest” method, where a customer comes to the farm to cut their own tree. According to the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association, there are approximately 100 choose and harvest tree farms in the state.  Real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states. The top selling Christmas trees in Iowa are Scotch Pine and White Pine.
  • high tunnel greenhouseVegetables.  There are many small farms in Iowa that thrive by selling in-season vegetables at their farm-front, road-side stands, and farmer’s markets. Others sell directly to restaurants or wholesale to grocery stores.  Some Iowa farmers extend the vegetable growing season by planting in high tunnel greenhouses. Almost any vegetable can be grown in Iowa, but the vegetable crop sold in greatest volume here is sweet corn. However, less than 1% of the corn grown in Iowa is sweet corn. Most of the corn grown in Iowa is field corn, used for livestock feed, processed food, and ethanol.
  • Apples.  Iowa was once a top apple producing state, but the Armistice Day Blizzard in November 1940 killed or severely injured many trees and reduced the state’s apple production by 85%.  Because of the risk of another severe freeze, many farmers chose not to replant and converted these acres to growing corn or hay.  Although Iowa is still not a top apple producing state now, there are many orchards across the state. Most are you-pick farms, but sell to grocery stores or directly to processors, like Iowa Choice Harvest that cleans, slices, flash-freezes, and bags apples for sale in grocery stores.
  • 20190805_142858Grapes.  Iowa’s grape and wine industry has grown immensely in the last 10 years. There are more than 300 vineyards in the state, with 100 that make their own wine. Like other specialty crops, Iowa’s weather limits the quantity and diversity of great varieties that can be grown here. However, the increased interest in growing grapes in Iowa and other upper Midwestern states has led to more research on grape cultivars that with withstand severe winters and mature in short growing seasons.  According to the Iowa Wine Growers Association, more than 40 different types of grapes are currently grown in the state.

Traditional farm bill commodity programs that support grain, oilseed, cotton, and milk production do not serve specialty crop producers, who provide the country with fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. The United States Department of Agriculture provides funding to support the production of specialty crops through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.  The program began in 2004 and is designed to “enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops.”  In other words, it provides funds to encourage farms to grow specialty crops.  This in turn, helps to support economic development in rural communities and increase consumer access to fruits and vegetables.





All About Hydroponics

Most of us have heard the term hydroponics before, but what does it actually mean? According to the dictionary, hydroponics is the cultivation of plants by placing the roots in liquid nutrient solutions rather than in soil. Furthermore, if we break the word into two parts, we have hydro and ponics. Both come from Greek origins, with hydro referring to water and ponics from the word ponein meaning “to labor or toil.” With that being said, hydroponics can be used just about anywhere and with multiple types of plants. In fact, there’s a lot of fruits and vegetables grown in hydroculture systems! Whether it’s a leafy green like lettuce, kale, or spinach to a juicy fruit like strawberries, tomatoes, or blueberries, it can be productively grown without soil!


Even though it may appear to look like one long pot of soil, but these strawberries are planted in an artificial growing medium.

But wait, don’t all plants need soil?

Actually no, plants don’t need soil. Soil is highly beneficial to plants by providing structural support for the roots as well as a substrate to exchange nutrients on, but this can be achieved through various materials. Try thinking of it this way – a plant has W.A.N.T.S. Water, Air, Nutrients, Temperature, Sunlight. With only a single one of these elements missing, a plant cannot survive. For example, if there’s a drought, eventually the plant will lose too much water through transpiration and will wilt and die. But what about if the temperature is too hot or too cold? The plant could easily burn or freeze, which quickly ceases its productivity. And what if a plant is grown in an environment lacking carbon dioxide? The plant wouldn’t be able to continue photosynthesizing, which means there are no sugars being produced. In a hydroponics system, the crops are receiving proper amounts of water, air, nutrients, temperature, and sunlight!

Now that we’re all wondering about hydroponics, it’s time to dive a little bit deeper! There are six main types used in large-scale production systems.

Wick System

Let’s start off with one of the more simple hydroculture methods. A wick system, or more commonly referred to as wicking, is when a plant is growing in the top of a material that is partially submerged in the nutrient solution. This material (it could be cotton, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.) is absorbing the liquid at the bottom and wicking it upwards towards the plant. This process means the plant’s roots are not wholly submerged in the water, which minimizes the associated risks and chances of this system failing. There are only four main components needed to create this system: wicks, growing medium, a container for the plant to grow in, and a holding container for the nutrient solution. This could easily be done in a classroom or around the house for a little innovative fun!


Photo from Smart Garden Guide.


This picture shows a very simple wick system, one that uses a cotton string to bring nutrient solution to the perlite growing media.  Photo from ehow.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

In a nutrient film technique system, there is a constant flow of nutrient solution over the roots of the plant. This greatly differs from wicking because the roots come in direct contact with the water. One of the biggest risks associated with this system is the chance of drowning out the roots. Due to this, it’s important to ensure the roots are receiving an ample amount of oxygen, whether it be from the air or an air pump in the water. The most efficient and productive NFT systems only submerge the root tips in the water, which means the remaining surface area on the roots are able to breathe. There are a few more components in this system, which makes it a bit complex and complicated. There’s still a reservoir for the nutrient solution and a growing media (perlite, vermiculite, rockwool, etc.). Additionally, there needs to be a channel for the water to run down, an air pump, a water pump, and a return pipe to complete the cycle.


Photo from Green and Vibrant.


This is lettuce grown with NFT. You can even see some algae growth that can accumulate if not cleaned often enough. 

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

In this system, the plant’s roots are also coming into direct contact with the water, but it’s not constantly flowing over them. In a simplistic view, DWC is very similar to wicking, just without the wick. The plants sit in a growing media at the top of the reservoir container, and the roots grow downward to reach the water. The most important and vitally crucial aspect of this system is the air pump. Without an air pump, the plant would take up all the available oxygen in the water solution and essentially suffocate. This air pump allows for continuous oxygenation and really serves as the heart of deep water culture. The best management technique would be to clean out and refill the tank about once a month, or frequent enough to prevent algal growth.


Photo from No Soil Solutions.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

Ebb and Flow is my favorite system, simply because of how autonomous it can become once properly set up. In this structure, there is a generally larger reservoir tank which is pumped into a growing bed that holds plants. Instead of letting the water sit and suffocate the plants, it will drain back down into the water tank. This is controlled by a timer and can easily be scheduled for the right frequency and duration of each flooding event. The plants sit in a growing media such as peat moss or rockwool, which absorbs the nutrient solution for extended periods of time. To make your own ebb and flow system, you’ll need a tank for the nutrient solution, a water pump, a growing bed that can be flooded, growing media for the roots, and tubing for the uptake and return pipes. Once this is completed, it should look something like the picture below! This is another great example of cycling water and nutrients through a system!


Photo from Green and Vibrant.

Drip System

The idea behind a drip system is quite similar to that of ebb and flow. The only major difference between the two is that instead of flooding the growing bed from the bottom up, there are small irrigation pipes that provide water from the top of the growing media on downward. This particular cycle still needs a pretty decent sized reservoir to hold the nutrient solution, an effective water pump, a growing bed to hold and drain water, as well as tubing to complete the cycle. Additionally, the grower needs a drip emitter, or at least a pipe with minuscule holes to allow for water to escape the tubes. This water pump can also be set up to a timer, which allows for minimal day-to-day upkeep. The grower can accurately control the quantity of water, nutrients, pH of the solution, and air available to the plants and their roots.


Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

Aeroponic System

Wait a minute, the prefixes aero and hydro mean two completely different things! How can aeroponics be considered a type of hydroponics? An aeroponic system still has the main components of every other type of hydroculture system, which includes exposing the roots to a nutrient solution without utilizing soil. When using an aeroponics setup, this allows for the most oxygen exchange with the roots since they are never fully submerged underwater. After learning about the five previous systems of hydroponics and how they work, you can probably guess the similarities and differences in this specific one! Instead of flooding a growing bed or utilizing a drip emitter, the nutrient solution is distributed through misters. These misters are positioned beneath the roots and growing media, and when turned on will coat all surfaces in a thin film of water droplets. This method still provides the necessary nutrients and water to the plants, without taking away any of the other W.A.N.T.S. The similarities include the basics of most hydroponic systems: having a good sized tank for holding the water solution, a growing bed and medium for the plants, a working water pump, as well as small tubing to connect everything.


Photo from Home Hydro Systems.

I’d love to give you all recommendations on which system works the best and some specific management techniques, but alas I’m still learning in those areas. Some important takeaways are:

  1. Plants can be grown without soil, but still need a medium to exchange nutrients on.
  2. Hydroponics can be used in many situations, from commercial fruit production to explaining simplistic ideas in a classroom setting.
  3. Each system is not necessarily a ‘one size fits all’ scenario. It may take time and practice to perfect your system for a particular plant!


P.S. If any of you have experience growing hydroponics or a preferred system that works better than others, feel free to share it in the comments!

How to “Look Under the Label”

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a women’s group at the 5th Annual Women Gaining Ground Conference presented by Women, Land & Legacy. There we were, many different women with many different backgrounds. Some in attendance were married with kids still living at home, while others were single and maybe still in school. And, there were women present who were wise with lots of valuable life experience. As I looked towards the audience and began my presentation, I pointed out a commonality that we all shared – we all eat!

I don’t know about you, but I try to eat three meals a day, with a snack in-between. As mothers and grandmothers, we feed not only ourselves, but our families too. Our families are the most important thing in the world to us, so we want to feed them the best and the healthiest options we can afford. A quick glance around any grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with many different messages. Grocery store aisles surround us with marketing messages including various food labels, that are trying to get our attention, capture our pocketbooks and claim that status of best and healthiest.

How marketing impacts food labeling

But what is the real story behind these labels? What do they mean? How can we sort out marketing speak from factual information that can have an impact on our health? The definition of marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” So, if food labels are marketing, what does this mean for us and how do they affect our decisions at the grocery store?

First, it’s important to recognize there are four types of food labels.

  1. Nutrition Facts labels: These are usually on the back or side of the packaging and are required by law on most packaged foods providing details of nutritional content.
  2. Health Claim labels: These describe the relationship between food and its health benefits or the reduced risk of a disease.
  3. Nutrient Content Claims labels: These are usually found on the front of the packaging and are voluntarily placed by food processing companies to help market their product.
  4. Farm Production Style labels: These describe the type of farming practices used, or not used in producing the food.

While looking at these labels, we should ask ourselves two questions. Is this label telling me something about the product? Or, is it using marketing tactics to convince me to buy the product? In researching the topic of food labeling, these two questions have challenged me to look at grocery shopping in a new way. When I pick up an item off of the shelf I have been asking myself, “Did the label tell me about an item or did the label sell me on an item?”

Labels that ‘tell you’ identify food with an objective, measurable difference from one package or brand to another. The “No Added Sugar” label is an ideal example. This claim can be measured in grams of sugar and verified using the Nutrition Facts Label which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Choosing a diet with foods low in added sugar has been scientifically proven to help people maintain a healthy weight.

Labels that ‘sell you’ separate foods that don’t actually contain a measurable difference in safety, nutrition or other factors. While these foods may be produced in different ways (eggs produced by chickens housed in cages verses hens in free-range housing) the end product provides the same levels of food safety, quality, and nutrition.

No HFCS, Non-GMO – No Matter the Label, it’s still Marketing


If a label reads, “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” what does that lead you to believe? Possibly that HFCS is bad? That you should pay more for a product that does not contain HFCS?actually no hfcs


Table sugar (typically sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose) is readily available to the cells in the body to produce energy. High fructose corn syrup is chemically very similar (usually 55% fructose and 42% glucose). So, the claim seems to be a marketing ploy. But, in general too much sugar of any kind (fructose, sucrose, glucose) in the diet is the problem, not necessarily the type of sugar.


When a product is labeled “Non-GMO” what does that lead you to believe?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic when it comes to food and food labeling products in the United States. You would think GMOs have bombarded the produce section of the grocery store. You would think it is difficult to avoid GMO fruits and vegetables. But the reality is there are only ten approved varieties of GMO plants. Of those crops, only five could be found in the produce section. They are sweet corn, papaya, potatoes, squash, and the Arctic Apple. (The Arctic Apple won’t be widely available on store shelves for a few more years.


Now what about “organic”?

Are they grown differently? Are they healthier? Are they pesticide free?



actually organic

We can use an analogy to illustrate the difference between a conventional and an organic farm. If you had a tree that needed to be removed, then you would need a tool to cut it down. You could use an ax, a hand saw, a chain saw, or a larger tree cutting machine to get the job done. Each of these tools have pros and cons. Different people see different advantages and disadvantages of each tool and have a different opinion of which tool is “best” for the job.

In organic farming, the farmer only gets to use a limited set of tools. In the case of our tree maybe they just use the ax or the handsaw. Conventional farming has the choice of using a lot more tools including different pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology, etc. This is represented in our analogy by getting to use any or all of the four tools to cut down the tree. Farmers use different “tools” to grow crops and depending on what they use determines whether they are considered organic or conventional.

By now, I am sure you have started thinking about how food labels impact consumer choices. Consumer choices directly impact the decisions farmers make in the production of our food. To learn more about food labeling and how food is grown visit where you will find this and other classroom lessons.


What’s Cookin’ ? Homemade Salsa

I love attending the Des Moines Farmers Market. There are only a few more weeks left to enjoy the food, music, and produce offered. This farmers market is one of the largest venues that I have had the opportunity to enjoy. There are close to 300 vendors that come from all over Iowa to share their products. My family meets together to eat fresh breakfast items and check out many of the booths. This past weekend provided beautiful weather for a trip downtown to find fall favorites. Our purchased items come together to create this week’s blog: Homemade Salsa.

Searching for tomatoes was easy, as there were several booths that offered variations of ripe Roma tomatoes. The Roma tomato is a thick-walled, meaty, egg-shaped Romatomato that is less juicy and has fewer seeds than other varieties. They have a slightly sweeter tomato flavor. Due to the meaty flesh, the Roma is an excellent choice for fresh salsa and it blends well with garlic, cilantro and other items used in the making of salsa. Roma tomatoes are high in vitamin A and C and is a rich source of lycopene.

Onions and garlic are mainstays in our salsa. In a previous blogs, we touched on information about onions and garlic. Garlic and onions have been around for more than 5000 years. China is the largest garlic producer. Onions are a root vegetable grown commercially in more than 20 states.

Tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomatoes, are a small fruit native to Central America. The small fruit that is used as a vegetable comes wrapped in a husk and resembles a small unripe tomato and is usually green in color. The flesh is acidic and has a hint of lemon taste. Tomatillos in the United States are grown mainly in Texas. We add tomatillos for the addition of acidity and lemon flavors.

Now for the peppers. We like using banana peppers and jalapenos. Banana peppers are a member of the chili pepper family and have a milder taste. These peppers can be green, red and orange in color. The ripest ones are sweeter, while the less ripe will be a bit 3tangier. Jalapenos are a chili pepper pod that is round, firm, about 4-6 inches long, and shiny green in color. With the jalapeno, it is important to Remember that they can carry a lot of heat inside. It depends on how hot you like your salsa when it comes to leaving in the seeds and membranes. The more left in, the hotter the jalapeno mixture. Color is another important measure to hotness for peppers. As the jalapeno pepper ages, it turns from green in color to red. A red jalapeno can pack a lot of heat inside.

Cilantro, also called Chinese parsley, is the leaves of a coriander plant. It is grown mainly in Texas. The flavor of cilantro is strong and pungent. Quite often used for the taste, as well as for the garnish appearance. Not everyone cares for the strong flavor, but this little plant is completely edible and used in many recipes.

Here’s the ingredients we used for some great homemade salsa

30 Roma tomatoes

4 Vidalia onions

4 banana peppers

3 jalapenos

2 tomatillos

3 diced garlic cloves

5 tbsp. cilantro

1 cup lemon juice

5 green peppers

3 tbsp. salt

4 tsp pepper


Depending on the amount you want to make, you will need to adjust the amounts of the ingredients listed above. We are making a big batch to share. Feel free to try adding some of your favorite things to make your version of homemade salsa.1

  1. Wear gloves while preparing salsa!
  2. Prepare tomatoes by soaking tomatoes in boiling water for 2-3 minutes to split and loosen skins. Peel and chop all tomatoes, drain excess juices off in a strainer or colander before adding extra-large bowl.
  3. Once all the vegetables are in the bowl, stir in the lemon juice, garlic cloves, salt and pepper.
  4. Taste to see if it is as hot as you would like it.  Increase heat by adding 1-2 more hot peppers, tasting after each addition. Keep in mind that as the salsa sits for a while, it will get a little bit hotter.
  5. Bring all ingredients to a boil in large pot & simmer for 15 minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking.
  6. Fill clean pint jars with salsa, leaving about 3/4 inch at the top. Wipe off tops of the jars before putting hot canning lids on. Screw lids tight then turn back about 1/4 turn.
  7. Process jars in a steam canner or boiling water canner (not pressure cooker or vegetable steamer) for 15 minutes. (Recipe makes 12 pint size jars.)

Here’s to chips and homemade salsa. Try it for yourself!


Celebrating the Three Sisters & the Story Behind the Thanksgiving Celebration

I have to be honest. I had no idea who the three sisters were and what their importance was. Or how it was connected to Thanksgiving until just recently when I came across it on social media. My interest was sparked and so here I am researching what this relationship is all about.

I recall growing up and hearing my parents say “back in the day” or “in my generation”. As I read this legend it brought back fond memories of learning things that were passed from generation to generation.  The legend of corn, beans and squash – and these plgarden7-copyants being referred to as the “three sisters” – relates back to Native Americans.  According to Iroquois legend these three plants when planted together thrive in the same way three sisters can be found to be inseparable. The Native Americans chose to plant corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, which created a sustainable system that provided for soil health and fertility. The connection of these three plants gives us a look back to how things were done when the America’s were first being inhabited and agriculture was in view as far as the eye could see.

three-sistersIroquois believed that the corn, beans and squash were gifts from the Great Spirit. The plants were thought to be watched over by the three sister spirits, called the De o-ha-ko or Our Sustainers and translates to “life support”. These three sister spirits protect and inhabit the croplands. Sister Corn stands tall to guard and protect the crops. Sister Bean feeds the roots of Sister corn. Sister Squash, the oldest of the three sisters stays close to earth and encircles the sisters in a protective fashion and uses her large leaves to protect and shade the soil. Planted together the sisters get their water supply from Father sky.

Corn, beans and squash were among the first important crops for early settlers. By the re-telling of the story and this way of planting as well as the legacy was passed down from generation to generation. This process of planting did much for the health of the crop. Corn provided a physical pole for the bean vines to cling to. The beans (as legumes) host bacteria on their roots that help increase the nitrogen levels of the soil around the plants roots and fertility of the soil would then increase. The bean vines would actually ecd77d3400bc54541063494cacf29e8d-copystrengthen and stabilize the tall corn plants. Nearer to the ground the squash vines created natural shading and helped to hold moisture in the soil and also prevented weeds from taking over beneath the corn and beans. I am amazed to see how the early farmers knew the importance of all of the components of planting and not just the end result of a crop. They worked diligently to protect the soil so that a good crop would be maintained for years to come.

These three crops also helped provide Native Americans with a nutritionally balanced diet. The corn provided quick energy in the form of carbohydrates. The beans were rich in protein. And the squash helped supplement the diet with vitamins from the fruit and oils from the seeds.

Corn, squash and beans are all native to the Americas and have been cultivated for ththousands of years. This trio helped keep soils healthy and it helped keep the Native Americans healthy. When early settlers landed and pushed west these three crops were quickly adopted into cultivation practices. The bounty of fall harvest surely included these and now, hundreds of years later, they are still served on the table as part of our Thanksgiving dinner menus.

~ Sheri

Sweet Corn Science: What Makes Sweet Corn Sweet? Why Does Corn Have Hair? & Other Questions Answered

sweet corn - close

One of the best things about summer is sweet corn.  We’ve had it almost every night for supper this week.  The two nights we didn’t, my kids whined like I just told them they have to give away their favorite toy.  I don’t blame them though.  What’s not to love about sweet corn?   It’s not only delicious, but it’s fun to eat and fun prepare too.  My kids love helping husk sweet corn.  It’s a mess and takes longer than if I did it myself, but it’s well worth it.  They have a blast, and I love the non-stop questions they ask.  “What makes sweet corn sweet?”  “Why does corn have hair?”  “Is this the same corn that cows eat?”  I usually give them pretty simple answers, but their questions got me thinking about the science behind the whys.   Below are some of their questions, as well as questions about corn that I’ve been asked by students and teachers over the years.

What makes sweet corn sweet?  

It’s all about sugar.  Not cane sugar or beet sugar, but natural sugars that occur in plants.  Sweet corn kernels have a very high sugar content when harvested at right time.  I’ll go into more detail about this later.

 What is the difference between the corn we eat (sweet corn) and animals eat (field corn)?  

Although they are closely related, they look different, taste different and are used for different things.  Sweet corn is a naturally occurring genetic mutation of field corn. The sweet corn plant is shorter, matures faster, and its kernels have a higher sugar content.  Field corn is harvested in the fall, after the plant dies and the seeds are dry and hard.  Field corn has a much higher starch content and is used to make livestock feed, ethanol, corn meal, corn starch, corn syrup and more.   Check out our blog post from last year to learn more about the difference between sweet corn and field corn.

Is Iowa the top sweet corn producing state?  If not, why?

Nope.  Iowa doesn’t even make the top 20 list.  Our growing season is too short and we are not home to any major canned or frozen vegetable companies.  Sweet corn is only harvested in Iowa from July through early September.  The fresh corn we eat the rest of the year comes from warmer states like Florida, California, and Georgia.  Most of the frozen and canned corn we purchase is grown in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Pacific Northwest states.  These states are home to many major vegetable processors who contact local farmers to grow sweet corn they use.  Iowa’s landscape is covered with corn fields, but nearly all of it is field corn.  Less than 1% of the corn grown in Iowa is sweet corn. 

Why doesn’t sweet corn taste as good a few days after you pick it? 

True sweet corn connoisseurs, including most farmers I know, prefer to eat corn the day it is picked.  That is because it tastes better!   When freshly picked, sweet corn is high in sugar and low in starch.  As sweet corn sits after picking, the sugars in the kernel turn to starch.  This mutes the flavor and affects its texture when cooked.

Having said that, it is completely safe to store in the refrigerator for up to a week.  Be sure to leave the husks on until you are ready to cook it though.  The husks help seal in the moisture and slow the conversion of sugars to starch.

Is sweet corn a fruit or vegetable? 

Both. Botanically speaking, an ear of sweet corn is a fruit (the seed producing part of the plant).  Tomatoes, squash, peppers and other seed-containing vegetables are technically fruits too.  In culinary terms, corn is considered a vegetable because it is a relatively unsweet edible plant part.  If you really want your head spinning with botanical lingo, check-out this fun video from SciShow.   I think it is more entertaining than most prime-time TV, but I am admittedly a plant-loving science geek.

Why doesn’t sweet corn from the grocery store in the winter taste as good?

Corn purchased in the winter, is grown in southern states like Florida.  It can be several days to a few weeks form the time it is picked until you buy it at the store.  During this time, sugar in the corn converts to starch making it less sweet and tender.  Growers and distributors store and transport corn in refrigerated units to slow this process, but there’s no way to stop effects of time completely.

What are the hair-like things between the husks and the kernels?  

corn plant diagramAlthough they are a big nuisance while cleaning and eating sweet corn, those “hairs” are extremely important.  Corn kernels couldn’t develop without silks.   In simple terms, the silk is a tiny tube that pollen travels down to make the kernels of corn.   Corn is monecious, meaning it has both male and female flowers on the same plant. The corn silk is the female flower and the tassel at the top of the corn plant is the male flower.  During pollination, pollen from the tassel is carried by wind to the silks.  Pollen grains attach to the sticky end each silk, and then travel down the silks to fertilize each ovary.  After pollination, the ovary develops into a kernel of corn at the other end of the each strand of silk.   Take a look the next time you husk corn, and you will notice that there is a silk attached to each kernel.

How do farmers know when sweet corn is ready to harvest?

Sweet corn should be harvested at the milk stage.   As the name implies, the kernels are full of a milky-looking juice when ready to pick.  To test, growers will pierce the soft kernels with their thumbnail to look for the milk, or even bite into a raw ear to test for sweetness.  Immature corn will ooze a clear liquid, while over-mature sweet corn kernels are tough and almost doughy inside.

There are also visual cues that you can use at the store without pulling back the husks.  Ready-to-eat ears are plump.  The silks at the end are brown and starting to dry, but the husks are still bright green and supple.  Skinny ears with extra pointy ends and white silks are immature.  These are signs that pollination just occurred and the kernels inside are not fully formed.  Also avoid buying ears with completely dry silks and husks that are pale green, brownish, dry-looking.  This indicates over-mature or not freshly picked corn.

Can you pick field corn early and eat it like sweet corn?

You can eat it, but it won’t taste nearly as good.  Field corn also goes through a milk stage like sweet corn.  As mentioned earlier, field corn has a much higher starch.  This makes the kernels considerably less sweet and much tougher, even when harvested during the milk stage.

What other questions do you have?  Ask away!  I’d love to answer your questions and help simplify the science of sweet corn.