Corn or maize, essential crop for millions of Thai farmers

a pile of crn cobsEvery now and then, articles about the rice cultivation in Thailand appear in the supplements of newspapers, such as Bangkok Post and The Nation, and in tourism-oriented magazines. Usually, these stories are lavishly and beautifully illustrated with pictures of Thai women knee-deep in the flooded paddies transplanting the bright green young rice sprouts, or cutting the individual stalks of the golden ears amidst the breast-high, waving plants at harvest time, using special knives so as not to disturb the ‘soul of the rice’. The writers invariably describe some of the age-old traditions relating to this indigenous staple crop, while ‘Thainess’ is almost equated with growing and eating rice. Few fail to mention that Thailand is one of the world’s major rice baskets.

There’s no comparable interest shown in sweet corn. I have never come across an article extolling the virtues of khao phot, as corn, or maize is called in Thai. While rice evokes poetry, corn-on-the-cob is a blind spot; at most it is mentioned in sober prose in a footnote. Yet for millions of Thai farmers, growing corn is economically as important as growing rice. It’s true that corn (Zea mays)  is not a native crop — it was first domesticated in Central-America at least 4000 years ago — but once introduced from the sixteenth century onwards, and following decades of cultivation, corn became integrated in the lives and cultures of many Asian peoples.

female flowers of corn

The ears (female inflorescences).

male flowersof corn

The tassels (male inflorescences).

Here in Northern Thailand, one only needs to leave the valleys with the abundance of na (rice paddies), and to ascend into the uplands, to become engulfed by rai (non-irrigated fields) planted with corn. The undulating, and truly scenic hill slopes clad with corn fields reach as far as the eye can see.  In provinces such as Nan and Phrae, definitely more acres of land are planted with maize than with rice. In fact, the two crops are often grown next to each other, forming fascinating mosaics in the landscape. Upcountry, narrow strips of irrigated paddy fields stretching alongside a stream may be surrounded by gently undulating hill slopes planted with corn, their myriad shades of green a delight to the eye. Elsewhere, mountain slopes may be planted with both maize and mountain rice, the latter also growing well in non-irrigated fields.

Besides in this region, corn is widely grown in the Northeast, and some also in the Central Plains of Thailand. Most fields, though, are in the uplands, where the corn is planted early in the rainy season (May and June), sometimes even in April as soon as the first rains have fallen. Planting corn, along with transplanting rice, is largely a women’s task. During the previous months, February and March, much labour has been invested in burning, and tilling, or ploughing these fields. Burning the dry weeds and the remaining leaves and stalks of a previous harvest is one of the major sources of carbon dioxide emission. Growing corn in the traditional way is definitely not the answer to countering the problem of the earth’s greenhouse gases, but then neither is wet-rice cultivation, as the nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in the roots of the paddy-rice add considerable quantities of  methane to the atmosphere.

planted corn in Nan

Hill slopes planted with corn, Wiang Sa district, Nan.

While the corn plants thrive under July’s clouded skies, farmers spray herbicides to kill weeds that compete for nutrients. Regular weeding of the fields is also required — traditionally, this is the most labour intensive part of the ‘corn cycle’. On reaching the height of about one metre, the maize plant starts to flower. First appearing, and most conspicuous, are the male inflorescences, or tassels, made up of countless tiny flowers at the end of the stalk, while the female inflorescences, or ears, appear lower down towards the middle of the stalk. Enveloped in a husk, the latter contain the characteristic cobs, which will later bear hundreds of seeds. Bundles of silk fibers protrude from the tip of the ear, resembling the long hair of a doll. Pollen from the tassels is carried by the wind to these threads, where it germinates and grows down to the ovaries on the cob. After fertilization, the latter will develop into the kernels.

Harvest time is in September and October. The cobs are simply broken off from the stalks and collected in bags. Small farmers may carry a large part of their harvest to their homes, where the cobs are hung under the roof or in barns, to allow the kernels to dry out. The bright yellow corn cobs adorning the huts are characteristic of many Northern upland villages. Later, the kernels may be removed by means of simple graters, and are sun dried in front of the huts.

In contrast to rice, little or nothing of the corn harvest is consumed locally. Most small farmers will sell at least 90 percent of their harvest to dealers, while about ten percent is stored at home. Part of this will be reserved for the next year’s planting, while a considerable portion is fed to the pigs and chickens. Some may be fermented and distilled to make lao khao phot, the local ‘corn liquor’. The latter is especially important to a number of hill tribes, among them the Lisu. In fact, the Lisu dedicate one of their major festivities, the ‘new corn festival’, to the harvest of corn. It’s unthinkable without the local liquor flowing lavishly.

corn harvest in Phetchabun

Corn harvest in Lom Sak district, Phetchabun.

In general, however, farmers will transport most of their harvest to a dealer, using their carts powered by tractor engines. The dealers may run a small or medium-sized agro-industry. Their plant sites usually include silos for the storage of agricultural produce. Here, the kernels are removed mechanically from the core of the cob, and the farmers are paid according to the nett weight and the quality of their loads. Such industries are established all over the North, while the left-overs of this initial step of processing — the husks and cores — are often burnt at these widely dispersed sites.

Alternatively, farmers from one or more villages may collectively rent a machine for removing the kernels from the cobs. In this case, it is transported to a suitable location, often alongside a main road, and the farmers will bring their harvested corn cobs in bags to this site. Their bags are emptied into the top of the machine, while the steady flow of kernels streaming from the base is collected in bags. All input and output is carefully weighted and registered. While the cores leave the machine somewhere near the base, the shucked husks, crunched into pieces, are blown into the air through a funnel, whirling down onto the participants like snow flakes. There may be a festive mood among the gathered farmers, virtually all males. When they return to their villages at the end of the day, huge piles of dried husks and cores are left smouldering along the roadside.

corn harvest in Wang Nua district, Lampang.

The kernels are removed mechanically from the cobs, husks being blown into the air. Wang Nuea district, Lampang.

Corn harvest in Wang Nua, Lampang

Farmers carry their harvest to the grater machine.

World output of cereal grasses, the major food crops, is over 600 million metric tons annually. In volume, maize ranks first, ahead of rice and wheat. Around the turn of the millennium, Thailand’s sweet corn exports accounted for seven percent of the world market share and contributed substantial foreign exchange earnings to the kingdom. This is just an indication of the impressive scale of Thailand’s corn cultivation, as a larger part (more than two-thirds) of the annual harvest is absorbed domestically by the livestock feed industries. During the past decade, the rapid expansion of the livestock industry has even triggered an increase in local demand for corn, thus curtailing corn export availability.

Yet Thailand is dwarfed by the United States, the world leader with a production of about 10 billion bushels of corn every year (about 40 percent of the world’s production), most of it grown in the Corn Belt, stretching from Nebraska to Ohio. About 60 percent is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens (one ton of corn is needed to produce 100 kilogrammes of meat), while twenty percent is exported. The remainder is mainly absorbed by industries that produce an astonishing array of products, everything from nylon clothes, plastics and synthetic rubber and glue to asparin and fireworks. Surprisingly, only about two percent is consumed by humans as ‘good old corn on the cob’, cornbread, popcorn and other edibles.

Corn harvest in Phakdi Chumphon.

Corn harvest in Phakdi Chumphon district, Chaiyaphum.

In Thailand, even less may find its way to the human stomach. Corn flour is widely used in Thai cuisine, while corn oil, extracted from the germ of the corn kernels, is a popular cooking oil. Cooked corn kernels mixed in dough may be boiled in oil to make tasty snacks. At markets, corn on the cob is boiled and sold for about ten baht a large cob. The cooked kernels are also a favourite ingredient in a popular market vendor’s snack consisting, besides corn, of a choice of jellies, cubes of dried bread, pieces of melon, plus cooked red beans, and other ingredients, which are served in sweet coconut milk and crushed ice. Baby corn, on the other hand, is an ingredient in a number of popular dishes, such as kaeng liang, a curry resembling a vegetable soup, and phat khao phot het fang kung, fried baby corn with straw mushrooms and shrimps. Yet corn is not prominent in Thai cuisine.

corn harvest

Corn harvest, Bueng Sam Phan district, Phetchabun.

It is, in fact, notably low in nutritional value, containing mainly carbon hydrates. Less than two percent consists of protein, which is of rather poor quality as it lacks three of the eight essential amino acids. In Aztec society, where corn was the staple food, it was therefore combined with protein-rich beans. A cautionary example of corn’s inferior nutritional value — it’s also a poor source of calcium and vitamin B3 — is the fate of the native Indians in Southern Georgia and Northern Florida. After the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century, their relatively heterogeneous diet, rich in seafood and a variety of plants and animals, was replaced by a rather homogeneous corn-dominated one, resulting in a rapid decline of their health, as manifested by endemic anemia, osteoarthritis, and tooth decay.

Corn harvest in Akha village.

Akha villagers in Chiang Rai engaged in removing the kernels from the cobs.

detail grater

A simple wooden grater can be used for removing the kernels from the cob.

Centuries ago, New World societies used corn not only for food, but also for art and religious inspiration. (Today U.S. farmers still seem to worship corn in their own way, erecting ‘corn palaces’ and holding corn festivals at which people wander about dressed as ears of their favorite grain.) Cobs from clay are numerous among pre-Columbian potteries and even provide an archeological record of the most popular races of corn. Yet, the domestication of corn is still an ‘incredible puzzle’, and the subject of heated scientific debates. The possible ancestor of corn (whether a grass called teosinte, or a rare natural hybrid) had tiny cobs of just half-an-inch long. This lasted thousands of years until Mexican farmers developed cultivars with six-inch cobs. Their dispersal to other parts of the New World was also extremely slow, but once a variety was developed that could thrive in North American climate, it triggered a soaring population growth among the Mississippi Indians. Soon after the beginnings of transatlantic shipping routes, corn became diffused throughout much of Africa, Asia and Oceania. It became the staple food in New Guinea (replacing the sago palm as the major source of calories), but nowhere else did it gain such importance in the human diet.

drying corn cobs.

Drying corn cobs.

In Thailand, growing corn gained increased popularity in the 1960s, when the country was rapidly developing and modernizing. Yet the increase in rice output was restricted, as  no more lowlands were available to convert to paddies. Consequently, Thai farmers moved into the uplands to clear the forests for growing such cash crops as cassava and corn, which both could thrive on relatively poor soils. Almost overnight, Thailand became the world’s number one producer of tapioca (dehydrated pellets of the cassava root).

Since the 1980s, cassava cultivation has gradually declined, mainly because of restrictions on its export to European countries. Corn’s rise as a cash crop was less spectacular, but its production continued steadily over the years, although available land in the uplands and highlands became scarcer.

Advertisement for corn cultivar.

Advertisements for high yielding corn varieties are a familiar sight in the agricultural lands.

Nowadays, farmers invest more in pesticides and fertilizer, and sow seeds of varieties with favourable qualities, notably large cobs. Large agro-industrial companies, such as Thailand’s multinational Charoen Phokphon (CP), among others, eagerly promote their new hybrids and GMRs, so brightly coloured billboards hailing their qualities are a common sight in Thailand’s uplands. Genetically modified races with increased amounts of the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophane have much improved corn’s nutritional value. Nowadays, given soaring oil prices, corn also has great potential as a source for gasohol, since the sugar content of the kernels is relatively high, while the dry cores and stalks could be a source of biofuel. So. In spite of its minimal role in human diet, corn will continue to play an important role in Thailand’s economy.

©Sjon Hauser: text and pictures.