This article is written as a way to inform readers as to why my students have lobbied to have Sweet Corn designated as the New York State Vegetable. Agricultural entrepreneurship and the crop production of sweet corn is a vital component of our New York State and local economy.

In order to understand, “Why Sweet Corn?” I wish to share some historical information with your readers.

The corn plant is native to North America. Humans began cultivating corn approximately 9,000 years ago in the area that is now Mexico. The cultivation of corn represents one of the most outstanding plant breeding achievements by humankind. Corn was also grown in South America, North America, in the Andes Mountains and even in Canada.

Some archeologists believe that the corn plant traveled north to Mesoamerica and through experimentation many corn varieties were established from the wild “teosinte” grass. As environmental and human adaptations took place, the corn plant spread across the continents. Native Americans grew a variety of corn that would become an important dietary staple that would change their culture and lifestyle in the Americas.

By 500 A.D. corn production had spread to the Iroquois, who lived in the area that is now New York State. Corn became the life staple for the Iroquois. They were able to grow different varieties and types of colored corn, which included pop, flint, dent and sweet corn.

When explorers reached the New World in 1492, Columbus was one of the first Europeans to see corn. He had no idea of the epicurean and culinary opportunities offered by his discovery. He discovered abundant fields of corn and discovered that the native people were dependent on this odd looking plant for food and other purposes. Maize, as it was called became a positive commodity and crucial part of the Columbian Exchange between the Old and the New World. Both worlds cultivated and experimented with the plant to meet their economic and human needs.

The Europeans experimented with this new food source creating food products such as corn pudding, corn bread and a breakfast favorite, corn mush, which was also known as “hasty pudding.”

The Native Americans utilized every part of the plant from kernel to cob. Cornhusks were used to make mats and containers such as small baskets; the cob was used as a scrub brush, a type of cork or as a fuel to smoke meat. The cornhusks and silk were also used to make dolls, mattresses and pillows. Shredded husks were used as tinder for fires. The early corn specimens were like a miniaturized version of what we today consider to be an ear of corn.

The natives referred to corn as one of the “Three Sisters.”

They believed the “Three Sisters”, corn, beans and squash, should never be separated. These three distinct vegetables were the main food supply for the Iroquois. The “Three Sisters” were regarded as a revered part of the physical and spiritual embodiment of the Iroquois way of life. Recorded legend has it that these life-sustaining plants were given to the people when all three miraculously sprouted from the body of Sky Woman's daughter, granting the gift of agriculture to the Iroquois.

The Native Americans used their expertise to determine the highest use of the soil, seeds and nature’s gifts to develop successful crops and to celebrate excellent growing seasons. Therefore, the belief the “Three Sisters” should not be separated originated as a result of the Iroquois tribes highly successful farming activities. The myths, legends and stories passed down through oral and written traditions provide a treasure trove of information for any individual seeking to understand the importance of the Native American farming traditions to New York State’s cultural history.

In 1620, as a gesture of good will Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to grow, farm and use corn. The Pilgrims, in turn, adapted the corn product, adding and using their own variety of ingredients to suit their needs to make flours and breads.

The short growing season for corn insured the colonists could use it as a survival commodity. The positive human interaction with Native Americans helped to safeguard the Pilgrims survival and success in establishing their settlement and maintaining food supplies through their first winter in America.

Over the years, maize, Indian corn, or just plain “corn” as it became known had remained an important, versatile, and useful food staple to the natives and the first Europeans. Both the Europeans and Colonials were content with this particular type of maize (colored corn) until the fateful summer of 1779.

As a result of the French and Indian War, members of the Iroquois Nation formed friendly alliances with the British. From the Iroquois perspective the British enactment of The Proclamation of 1763 restricted white settlers from taking their lands and as a result it was natural to work with the British against the “colonial invaders”. Ironically, it was due to the fact the Iroquois had developed the best agricultural methods for growing food that so many of the tribal members could be free to assist the British while the women tended to the corn fields.

The Iroquois tactical actions in furtherance of British objectives against the Continental Army angered General George Washington. The Iroquois British alliance placed a severe strain on the Continental Army’s manpower and resources. The Iroquois raids and attacks had deprived Washington’s army of food and supplies and often resulted in frontier settlements being abandoned.

The Iroquois capability to access crucial food supplies and their ability to attack the Continental Army and settlements thereby created a major problem for Washington. By 1779, New York’s Governor Clinton requested the Continental Army’s assistance to stop the Iroquois attacks on settlers.

Washington took decisive action to end the Indian threats that were plaguing New York’s settlements. In 1779, determined to exact punishment for aiding the British and to stop the Six Nations from waging war on Americans; General George Washington devised a plan of action. He created the Sullivan - Clinton Expedition. Washington’s strategy had two goals. The first called for the immediate destruction of the Iroquois and their resources. The second goal was to force the Iroquois to retreat to Fort Niagara so they would become a liability and an economic burden to the British.

The Sullivan - Clinton Campaign was the largest expedition of its time ever mounted against Native Americans. The campaign deliberately targeted the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy, most specifically the Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga Nations. The expedition was ordered to completely destroy the Iroquois.

To provide an understanding of this expedition, I have included excerpts from General Washington’s orders:

Order of George Washington to General John Sullivan at Headquarters (Wallace House, New Jersey) 1779

“The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents.”

“The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements … It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

“I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.”

Although General Washington never personally visited the Finger Lakes, he left a terrible scar upon our geographic location. His military directives and pursuit of a “scorched earth policy” in this campaign cast irreparable economic harm and cultural devastation upon our region.

Receipt of these orders gave the Continental Army free reign to set about destroying the Iroquois culture and homeland. As Sullivan moved through the territory, his army seized what food they could use from local crops and destroyed the rest. Soldiers raided grain storage structures, burned food supplies, standing crops, orchards and homes. They completely destroyed the Iroquois infrastructure and cut off all food supplies. Following Washington’s orders the Sullivan - Clinton Expedition eradicated the Iroquois cultural and technological achievements and destroyed their way of life.

According to Sullivan’s Official Report, “… ... … the army burned 40 towns and their surrounding fields consuming at least 160,000 bushels of corn, with a vast quantity of vegetables of every kind.” A 1969 study by Anthony Wallace concluded, “Washington’s scorched earth campaign destroyed 500 dwellings and approximately one million bushels of corn.” The Sullivan –Clinton Expedition was deemed a Military success due to the horrific annihilation of the Iroquois people and their culture.

“The great, expensive expedition, glorious in its progress against the opponents of liberty, had in fact succeeded in leaving the people of New York more vulnerable, more isolated and less protected than before Sullivan’s army had marched,” according to historian Richard Berleth’s account in Bloody Mohawk

Out of the destructive spoils of the Sullivan - Clinton Expedition sweet corn as we now know it gained a new life. While foraging for food and supplies the soldiers discovered fields of extra-sweet yellow corn. They realized this corn was more palatable — a yellow variety that was sweeter and had a more tender kernel.

This sweet corn was a better specimen and became a nutritious food source for the weary soldiers. According to written accounts, one of Washington’s Officers appropriated seeds to take back to his farm in order to grow this unique vegetable. It is also possible others shared in the “corn discovery” as a kind of “spoils of war” souvenir.

Perhaps the sweet corn we enjoy today is a direct agricultural descendant saved from General Washington’s destruction by his own soldiers?

The Quest

Sweet corn is one of the most popular and economically important vegetable crops produced in New York State in terms of acreage, crop value and availability in local, regional, and national markets. Fresh, canned, and frozen sweet corn ranks among the top 10 vegetables in value and per capita consumption. (USDA)

By way of background the quest to have sweet corn designated the NYS Vegetable began a decade ago. Students in my Civics class wanted to engage in a class project that would allow them to be proactive New York State citizens. The goal to research and develop an idea for a law that would be of benefit to New York State and bring attention to the importance of agriculture in our state and local communities . The students viewed the activity as preparation for their training as future leaders in their community and New York State.

Faced with the realities that high school students don’t belong to lobbying organizations and traveling to Albany on a weekly basis was not an option, the students turned to local interests. The class researched the economic impact of agriculture in Cayuga County and New York State

Through their research and analysis students discovered that Sweet Corn was a significant crop in Cayuga County and New York State. Upon completion of the research, the students decided that that Sweet Corn’s economic and agricultural significance was so important that they were determined to request a law to have Sweet Corn declared the official NYS vegetable. The request was also based upon the premise that such a law would bring attention to the importance of agriculture in New York State.

My student’s anticipation was for NYS to be the first state to have Sweet Corn declared a state vegetable. Unfortunately, in 2015 with less than a year of debate, Illinois became the first state to designate sweet corn as their state vegetable.

In 2007, my legislative pioneers circulated and collected petitions throughout the school and community. The students requested the help of their elected officials Hon. NYS Senator Michael Nozzolio and Hon. Assemblyman Robert Oaks. Each legislator introduced a Sweet Corn Bill into his respective legislative chamber. To their credit Senator Nozzolio and Assemblyman Oaks has been faithful to their young constituents introducing the Bill in each of the legislative sessions during the last ten years. Senator Nozzolio and Assemblyman Oaks have always been gracious with their time to meet with the Dana L. West students at the school and when we have Visited Albany.

The students raised funds for their lobbying field trip to Albany. Armed with petitions and letters the students were prepared to plead their case to the NYS Legislators. Senator Nozzolio arranged for the students to appear before the respective Senate Committee reviewing the Sweet Corn Bill. Students shared their ideas and petitions with the State Legislators. The session became a “real time Civics class” with students having the opportunity to express their concerns for the need to have a State Vegetable and the Senators responding in kind. Students left optimistic that they had “made their case for Sweet Corn”. Thus began the Legislative quest that has continued to be a work in progress for students throughout the last ten years.

Initially the students were faced with the harsh reality that some members of the New York State Legislature did not understand that sweet corn is not the same corn that is fed to farm animals and processed for other purposes.

In an effort to enlighten the adults and to bolster their knowledge the students “hit the books” and researched the agricultural definitions for vegetables found in the UDSA and Horticultural publications. My students discovered The U.S. Department of Agriculture has five food groups. The second food group identified after fruit is vegetable, and they classify sweet corn as a vegetable and it is included in the USDA annual vegetable summary.

The students also received research help from the Cayuga County Cornell Cooperative Extension Office. We were also blessed to have available the expertise of Dr. Steve Reiners, Professor and Chair of the Horticulture Section, School of Integrative Plant Science, NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.

Dr. Reiners helped us to address the claims that sweet corn is not a vegetable. His research revealed that Jules Janick, a Professor at Purdue University and one of the foremost horticulturalists of his generation, provided a definition of a vegetable in his book, Horticultural Science.

In his book Janick notes “…generally considered as vegetables are those herbaceous plants of which some portion is eaten, either cooked or raw, during the primary part of the meal”. This would include obvious vegetables like lettuce and broccoli but also those in which we eat the seeds, like peas and sweet corn”.

This generally accepted horticultural definition of a vegetable was cited by the 1893 United States Supreme Court decision in Nix v. Hedden 149 U.S. 304. Nix, a tomato importer in New York argued his tomatoes should not be subject to the federal tariff as tomatoes were fruit and were exempt. The Port of New York argued that tomatoes are a vegetable. The Honorable Justice Horace Grey, in finding that tomatoes are a vegetable wrote, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as cucumbers, squashes beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, all these vegetables are usually served at dinner, in, with, or after the soup, fish or meat, which constitute the principle part of the repast, and not, like fruit, generally as dessert”. Since corn is eaten with principle part of the meal, it too is considered a vegetable. Ironically, one of the US Supreme Court Justices on this case, Justice Blatchford was from Cayuga County.

In 2007, the NY Senate approved the Sweet Corn Bill, but it was not without vigorous discussion of the fact that corn was something fed to animals, notwithstanding the information that was presented to the Senate Committee. My query to the Legislators was that if the US Supreme Court issued a decision in a New York State case and determined that sweet corn was a vegetable why can’t New Yorker’s do the same?

The battle over naming a state vegetable heated up in 2011 when Sen. Carlucci proposed the onion as a worthy opponent to Sweet corn.

In a Marist College poll regarding the people’s choice for NYS Vegetable Sweet Corn v. the Onion, the majority of those polled statewide wanted sweet corn to be named as the State Vegetable. In a similar Facebook Poll conducted by the NY Farm Bureau, sweet corn beat the onion by more than 400 votes. In a third poll conducted by Lee Publications, The Citizen, in Cayuga County sweet corn was the top choice.

The 2011 lobbying efforts for the “Sweet Corn Bill” necessitated my students to travel to Albany to state their case armed with their letters and petitions to visit the Senate Committee and to meet with Assemblyman Oaks.

In fact a “High Noon Showdown” happened when Sen. Carlucci came face to face with our group in the waiting area outside the Senate meeting room.

We discussed his “Onion” idea and after discussion amicably shook hands. Senator Carlucci acknowledged the work of my students and indicated he would be supportive of their quest to have “The Sweet Corn Bill” go to the Senate floor for a vote. The Senate approved the measure by a 56-6 vote. The student anticipation was hopeful. Unfortunately, the Sweet Corn Bill did not pass in the Assembly.

I realize that our State Lawmakers have very important jobs. Notwithstanding, however, two of my students Braden York and Patrick Jorolemon, agree, “to make sweet corn the official NYS Vegetable is not that difficult of a decision to make!” More importantly, my seventh grade honors students believe passage of the Sweet Corn Bill is a win-win for the farmers, corn growers and consumers across the state.

According to the 2012 USDA’s Census of Agriculture, New York ranks 4th in the value of sweet corn production. The state’s sweet corn sales total $68.4 million dollars annually. The census also reports that in 2102, 1,446 New York farmers harvested 28,586 acres of sweet corn. Cayuga County with 4,126 acres harvested was the top corn-producing county in the state.

The statistics are clear. In 2016, my students are asking the leaders in our state government to take a pause and look at the information. The economic reports and agricultural data verify that sweet corn is indeed an important vegetable to the New York State Economy. Giving credit to the importance of agriculture in New York State and to the State’s economy is no small matter!

In addition to the economic benefits of sweet corn there are also health benefits that make corn a unique vegetable. Many people enjoy it as a part of their daily diet. Corn has long been recognized as a good source of nutrition. Corn provides protein, fewer calories and fiber that are both essential elements in our diet.

Listed below are other health benefits of corn.

Health Benefits of Corn

Rich source of Vitamins and Minerals

Improves Bone strength

Reduces Cholesterol Absorption in the Body

Prevents Anemia

Lowers the risk of Colon Cancer

Boosts the immune system

Helps maintain good vision and skin

Reduces the risk of Various Cardiovascular Diseases

Not only is corn good for us, corn also serves an academic purpose. It is used as a major “study” plant for the academic disciplines having been researched and studied in the fields of genetics, physiology, soil fertility and biochemistry.

As a role model for my students, I know that I have to invest and encourage their educational development. More importantly, I also have to help them develop their Civics conscience to be proactive in promoting democracy.

They are the future leaders of our nation. It is my duty to teach students how to advocate and support their ideas for legislation. Throughout the last ten years my students have expressed an extraordinary interest in the legislative process and desire to effectuate positive change. As a result, I think it is fair that the passage of the Sweet Corn Bill should become a part of their New York State History for them and their children.

In discussing the Sweet Corn Bill: my students have envisioned a day when a Sweet Corn Figure will be greeting visitors to the New York State Fair. I can imagine the entrepreneurial opportunities for agricultural and commercial vendors at the site.

This summer season as you travel on the roads and by ways of New York and spy a cornfield in your view, I ask you to remember, that no agricultural engineer ever grew and cultivated a finer vegetable than Sweet Corn.

Whether you roast the corn in the husk or shuck and boil it in a corn pot, serve it as a side dish, eat it a clambake or picnic, sweet corn is a shining example of nature’s bounty.

Sweet Corn truly deserves the title New York State’s Official Vegetable!

Nothing conjures and evokes “summertime memories” like our homegrown sweet corn that is sold throughout the state at roadside stands, farmers markets and grocery stores.

Dr. Linda Townsend is a teacher at Port Byron Junior/Senior High School. 

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