Corn, redeemed


by Sofi Thanhauser


Elizabeth Cecil

The other day an ominous warning flashed onto my computer screen. “Four foods never to eat. Warning: These supposedly ‘healthy’ foods actually increase abdominal fat!” And one of them was a photo of a gleaming ear of corn.

Poor corn. In the wake of documentaries like “King Corn” and “Supersize Me”— both of which raise questions about American agriculture that have messy, complicated answers—corn has become a convenient fall guy. After all, which is easier and more fun: overhauling our notions about how crops ought to be grown, or trashing corn?

Meanwhile, far from the camera’s glare, one Island farmer is quietly discovering the miraculous, life-sustaining qualities of one of our modern sweet corn’s venerable cousins: a heritage breed of maize known as Rhode Island White Cap Flint.

“I’m starting to see why the Central Americans worshiped it as a God,” says Pat Brown, admiring the stalks of maize shooting out of the earth. He is standing on a plot of land behind Featherstone Center For the Arts, which he rents from the Land Bank and cultivates in addition to his home garden in Oak Bluffs.

Pat is a kind-looking man in his mid-forties. The wing-like lines around his eyes makes it seem like they might, at any given moment, take flight. He has the permeating calm that comes to those who spend their days near plants and their unhurried rhythms.

Pat’s maize is a deep, rich green, set off to advantage by the yellowing, anemic pallor of the nearby field grasses, which are suffering under a hot and rainless early July.

It is too early to say for sure, but it looks as though this maize—Rhode Island White Cap Flint, to be precise—may be the newest member of Pat Brown’s vegetable Dream Team.

For anyone who has seen those distressing documentaries referred to above, with their aerial shots of unending acres of monoculture, Pat Brown’s Featherstone garden is a refreshing contrast. Plant species mingle together here in a gorgeous, tangled chaos. Beans clamber up last year’s corn stalks; giant bolting parsnips barge in on bobbing stalks of claret-colored amaranth. His home garden is more of the same, with comfrey sprouting up under fruit trees, and walking onions ambling through patches of Ragged Jack kale and colorful flowers.

Behind all this apparently random flourishing there is a sophisticated central vision at work. The plants that Pat Brown chooses to grow, the plants that he has spent the past two decades seeking out, are those that can flourish under the natural circumstances of Island weather. They demand little or nothing from him in the way of water, fertilizer, or labor. He keeps up a healthy layer of topsoil through composting, cover crops, mulch, and cardboard, and he expects the plants to do the rest themselves.

What he is aiming for here is to create “a closed system, that pretty much runs itself.”

Unsurprisingly, his quest for independent self-starters has lead him repeatedly back to the classics—“the old standby crops that have gone out of favor because they’re not, I don’t know, sexy,” says Pat. He doesn’t look satisfied with his word choice, but then, how do you explain the strange fact that farmers have abandoned plants that grow easily in our climate in favor of others that require tremendous amounts of water, fertilizer, and labor?

To Pat, our insistence on growing needy, difficult plants stems from the preferences and habits we have developed in the era of the grocery store. “The good news is that, in the scheme of things, it’s relatively simple to produce a not-insubstantial amount of food,” he says. More concretely, Pat estimates that he spends about two hours in his garden every day (he also works as a carpenter) and grows about sixty percent of the food he himself eats; his garden also feeds his wife and five daughters.

The bad news is, “It’s not the kind of food we’re used to, that we’ve grown used to in the last 60 years.” Last year, when Pat grew maize for the first time on land at Whippoorwill Farm, he ground some of it and placed it among the offerings in the farm’s CSA. He was shocked to find that many of the CSA members had absolutely no idea what to do with it. “People don’t know what to do with food,” he says. “That is a big part of this.” Experimenting in the kitchen is another part of Pat Brown’s overall project. Last year he used the maize to make tortillas, grits, and corn muffins.

He doesn’t mind the limitations (and occasional monotony) that come along with eating local all the time, but he doesn’t force his family to walk his own purist line. “Pat…could live on only what he grows, rice, and tamari,” says his wife, Cindy. For herself and the girls, however, she reserves the right to make trips to Cronig’s as she sees fit. If she wants broccoli and the broccoli is not ready, she says, she will go and buy some.

Although there seems to be some friendly fireworks over the square footage in the front lawn—Cindy would perhaps like some more space to plant her flowers—she is lovingly tolerant of what she calls her husband’s gardening bug. “It makes summers affordable,” she says.

The story of the garden’s origins is a wonderful, deeply human example of how far we sometimes have to go to discover there is no place like home. Pat and Cindy met in 1983 at Webb’s Campground, married soon after, and between 1984 and 1994 they had five girls. In 1997, Pat was feeling trapped and claustrophobic. He wanted to homestead, and the little lot on Lagoon Avenue didn’t seem like enough. The Browns had tried for years to obtain affordable farmland on Martha’s Vineyard, but with no success. “I felt like I was suffocating,” Pat says. So, in ‘97, the Browns bought some land from a friend on Prince Edward Island, rented out their house for the summer, packed the family into a van, and headed north.

When they arrived at PEI, the black flies were so bad “you couldn’t stand outside,” Pat says. With their house on the Vineyard rented out for the summer, the Browns decided to hit the road. They stayed on campgrounds across the US, “found out that the most unfriendly place in the country is Arkansas,” and spent a sweltering month with Pat’s parents in Florida.
When the renters were finally out of their house in Vineyard Haven, the Browns returned home—and suddenly Pat “saw everything fresh.” His little patch of land seemed totally transformed, and he realized, “Right here is where I could have the garden.”

Since then, he has not looked back. The space constraint of his small lot has helped dictate an innovative gardening technique, one that has radical implications for those who crave a certain level of self-sufficiency, but who don’t want to endure the rural isolation that plagued, and ultimately undid, the efforts of many zealous back-to the-landers in the 1960s and 70s.

Pat admits that his work is monotonous and frustrating at times. But he is always able to keep himself interested by considering all his adhoc, helter-skelter labors as pieces of a single, monolithic philosophical experiment. His thoughts always lead him back to, and his actions always reference, a big What If. “What would we do,” he says, “if we couldn’t pump in millions of gallons of water, if we couldn’t truck in billions of tons of fertilizer. What would we do? That’s the question I’m constantly asking myself.”

If we turn our attention once more to those endless fields of waving corn in the Midwest, Pat’s question takes on a special prescience. Quietly and relatively unheralded, the Ogallala Aquifer, the massive underground lake that transformed the great plains into America’s bread basket, is dropping at an alarming rate, with some estimates saying it could run dry in as little as 25 years.

Pat Brown knows all this. He can talk to you about farmer suicides in Northern India, and the geopolitical implications of the late Norman Borlog’s high-yielding crops. But he isn’t getting lost in that kind of speculation. Instead, his mind is on the next prospective member of the dream team: sweet potatoes. “I am really hoping they work out,” he says wistfully. “They are my favorite thing to eat.”