Why do farmers leave corn in the fields to die? Field corn is handled differently than sweet corn, and drying in the fields is an important part of harvest.
What’s the Difference Between Sweet Corn and Field Corn?
Sweet corn and field corn are closely related, but they aren’t exactly the same. They have very different tastes, and are used for different things. You wouldn’t want to grab an ear of field corn and plan to have some tasty corn on the cob!
In this post about corn in Indiana, I showed a picture of an ear of corn. You may have noticed, it doesn’t look exactly like what you expect from an ear of sweet corn.That’s because it’s not sweet corn! This is called field corn, and it gets harvested and used differently than sweet corn.
Here’s a field that is planted with field corn on the right, and sweet corn on the left. (There’s more field corn in the back left.) Can you see the difference in the plants? The field corn is much taller and has fuller leaves than the sweet corn. The sweet corn looks sort of short and spindly. (Yes, it’s dry, but this is pretty close to how the plants will look in a normal year, too.)
Sweet corn is harvested when it looks like this. The silks at the top of the ear are brown, so we know that the kernels inside are as developed as they are going to get. The leaves that wrap the ear are nice and green (maybe a little bit of brown around the outside edges). The ear is still held tightly against the main stalk.
When you get your sweet corn home and shuck it, it looks like this. Yellow and/or white kernels, nice and round and plump and looking delicious!
Lots of sweet corn is sold fresh on the cob. It is also processed and frozen or canned.
See how we grow sweet corn on our farm here.
Field corn is used very differently than sweet corn. It’s not nearly as sweet as sweet corn, so it doesn’t taste very good right off the cob. Field corn will be processed into corn meal or corn flour, and then used in foods that have corn as an ingredient. Simple examples are tortilla chips or corn flakes, but lots of other foods also contain corn.
Some field corn is called seed corn. This will be used as seed for next year’s corn crop instead of being used for food this year.
Field corn is not harvested as early as sweet corn. The goal is for the corn to start to dry while it is still on the ears. Corn is very high in moisture, and it needs to dry out quite a bit before it can be processed. This corn is starting to dry out, but isn’t ready for harvest yet.
Farmers are looking for a few things to tell them that field corn is ready to harvest. First, the silks at the top of the ears turn dark brown. Then the shucks around the ears turn brown. Next, the rest of the corn plant dies and turns brown. Finally, the ear falls so that instead of being held up against the main stalk, it drops down so the silks are pointed at the ground. This is one way that farmers know the corn is dry enough to harvest.
The kernels of field corn are darker yellow and are larger than kernels of sweet corn. You can see that some of these kernels have a dimple. This means the kernels are starting to dry out. That dimple is also called a dent, and field corn is often also called “dent corn.”
This ear of corn isn’t quite ready to harvest, but it’s getting close. This usually happens sometime between late September through early November in southern Indiana.
Are you looking for ways to use sweet corn? Check out these great recipes:
|Grilled Corn on the Cob||Sweet Corn & Tomato Salad||Slow Cooker Ham & Corn Chowder||Sweet Corn & Bacon Salad|