On the Locavore Trail this month, I came across a Kansas farmer who raises some of the finest corn one could ever hope to taste. I recently enjoyed a visit with this farmer and a walk through rows and rows of corn on his family's farm just outside of Lawrence, Kan.
Personally, my fave vegetable is corn.
I love corn on the cob lathered with butter, and creamed corn, just like they make at The Brookville Hotel in Abilene, Kan. I also love corn in my soup, salsa and dips, tamales and, of course, my favorite — grits.
I decided to research the history of corn in America, and I was quite surprised to find out that corn has been around for 80,000 years.
Well, ok, for centuries.
Seriously, Columbus made it famous in the Western hemisphere when he discovered it in the 15th century.
When the first colonists decided to plant vegetables, they incorporated concepts long-practiced by Native Americans of North America. This incorporated companion planting of “The Three Sisters,” or corn, beans and squash, which were the three main agricultural crops first planted along the New England coast.
Today, corn is the No. 1 crop in the Midwest, and if you ask anyone from Kansas, they will tell you their corn is the best. Sweet and plentiful, it is relatively easy to grow and farmers hardly ever complain about their hearty corn crops.
Kansas farmer Lowell Neitzel and I sat down after walking through his family’s corn field. We discussed the history of Bismarck Gardens, including how the farm got its name: Nunemaker-Ross, Inc.
According to Neitzel, it all started after Neitzel’s wife’s grandfather, Gene Nunemaker, came back from World War II, and began working with wife Pauline's family. The senior Nunemaker purchased the land along with his father- and mother-in-law, Bill and Mary Hayden. The partnership changed from Hayden-Nunemaker when the Nunemakers' daughter, Mary, married Pat Ross.
The Nunemaker-Ross Farms operation has evolved into a multi-family, multi-generational endeavor that includes an expansive cattle operation and other agricultural products.
Bismarck Gardens, a part of the larger Nunemaker-Ross Farms complex, was started almost 30 years ago by Pat and Mary Ross, and Kent and Debbie Nunemaker.
Today it is run by Kent and Debbie, Neitzel and brother-in-law Lyle Nunemaker, and their families. Corn is one of its most sought-after harvests.
More than 25 acres of sweet corn are farmed today by the expanded family.
"We've got a one-row picker there on the tractor, and we will hook up to one of our trailers and we'll just go through and pick a couple of rows onto a trailer, then we will take it back up to the market, sort it and bag it," says Neitzel.
The farm stand opens to the public beginning Fourth of July weekend, when hundreds of sacks of corn are sold daily along with green beans, beets, squash, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and peaches — all grown on the Kansas farm.
I had a lot of questions that early morning in June and Neitzel was more than happy to oblige my curiosity.
As for this chef, I was also dying for a sampling of the sweet corn.
Jasper Mirabile: What varieties of corn do you grow?
Lowell Neitzel: Temptation — these are the Caico varieties (yellow and white) — and Honey Select is our yellow variety.
JM: Which type do you think is best for an old-fashioned corn on the cob?
LN: I would have to say one of the yellow varieties; that is what I grew up with.
JM: Is it true corn is one of the oldest agricultural crops in America?
LN: I am not sure on that, but it goes back all the way to the Aztecs in Mexico.
JM: When do you start planning for the summer corn crop?
LN: We started April 1, although it was cold. We knew we needed to try to get it in the ground so that we could do our best to have corn for the Fourth of July.
JM: How much corn do you produce on average each year?
LN: We produce around 7,000 dozen in a season. Every season is different. Mother Nature seems to help with that.
JM: You also grow feed corn and corn for ethanol?
LN: Yes, we grow corn for both feed and ethanol, as well as waxy corn, which is used for food-grade starches, on our family farm.
JM: Is it true that if it weren't for farmers' crossbreeding of agriculture, corn that we know today would only be about 2 inches long?
LN: Not sure if it would be that small, but it would be smaller nonetheless. But with good hybrids and good practices, the corn has came a long way.
JM: What's it like living on a farm in Kansas?
LN: It's the only thing I know. It's great; every day has a new challenge. I would not change it for anything. The fresh air, the views, the chance to have my family around and take my kids with me in the tractor or to check the livestock … it's priceless.
J:M What is the best way to enjoy Bismarck-grown corn?
LN: I would have to say the old-fashioned way. Boil it, slather it with butter, and put a little salt and pepper on it.
Bismark Farm & Gardens
1616 N. 1700 Rd.
Mexican Street Vendor Corn
Corn (in the husks)
½ cup melted butter
1 cup grated Cotija Mexican cheese
4 lime wedges
Red chili pepper flakes & sea salt (to taste)
Set up and preheat outdoor grill for medium-high heat.
Do not peel husks off corn. Place corn on grill until hot and lightly charred all over, 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the temperature of the grill.
Peel back husks and roll ears of corn in melted butter, sprinkle with Cotija cheese, salt and red chili peppers.
Roll back husks and place on grill a few minutes until cheese melts.
Serve with lime wedges.
Fun Corn Facts
There are approximately 72,800 kernels of corn in a bushel.
Each ton of paper uses 28 lbs. of cornstarch.
Corn is grown on every continent except Antarctica.
Some corn can grow over 20 feet high.
An ear of corn averages 800 kernels in 16 rows.
75% of all grocery items contain corn in some form. Even when you buy meat, don’t forget the animal the meat came from probably ate corn.
Source: Kansas Corn Growers Association