In the U.S., corn is ubiquitous. It’s the most-grown crop in the country. Corn products line several grocery aisles: on the cob or kernels in a can, popcorn, chips, cereals, bread mixes for baking — the list could go on and on.
When Americans think of states that grow corn, Oregon very likely isn’t the first to come to mind. Iowa is bar none the country’s corn leader.
Crops usually more associated with Oregon are crab, wine and truffles — but corn is a top food product grown in Oregon, bringing more money to the state than crab. On the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s list of the top 20 most valuable agricultural commodities in the state as of April, corn grain is 15th at $80.5 million. (Meanwhile, Dungeness crab is 18th at $67.1 million).
In 2023, Oregon farmers are expected to plant 85,000 acres of corn — 13% more than last year. In comparison, wheat farming in Oregon trumps corn by a landslide, with nearly nine times the acreage. But land for wheat in the state is only expected to grow 3% this year.
As Oregon changes, both in population and from warming temperatures, corn is becoming a more important food.
A fried feat
It’s what Oregonians do with corn that makes it special here. The state lays claim to one of the most iconic corn products of modern times: The corn dog was invented on the Oregon Coast.
It was Labor Day 1939 when a Rockaway Beach hot dog vendor named George Boyington had an idea: What if instead of buns, batter could be cooked on demand?
He developed a delicious “pronto” solution, and the snack on a stick became a national hit.
The Original Pronto Pup first opened in 2016, as an homage to the culinary creation invented in town roughly eight decades earlier.
“It’s actually pretty amazing when you realize how big of a following Pronto Pups have,” said Diane Langer, who bought The Original Pronto Pup with her husband in late 2021. “And when people come in and they say, “We drove three hours to come and have a Pronto Pup.” Or, “We came from Idaho.” Or, “We came from Michigan.”
The corn dog has company in Oregon’s contributions to fried food: The state is also the birthplace of tater tots. As iconic as it is, the corn dog plays only a small role in the story of corn in Oregon.
Corn is cultural
At Three Sisters Nixtamal in Southeast Portland, workers at the women-led business make thousands of tortillas each weekday morning in a traditional way — like generations have before them. Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel and Wendy Downing are the co-founders and co-owners of the business, along with Adriana’s husband Pedro Ferbel-Azcárate.
“The three sisters are a reference to the Indigenous way of growing corn, beans, and squash together, and the way they sustain each other and work together and create something greater with the three of them,” said Downing.
Corn as we know it wouldn’t exist without humans — it did not evolve naturally. In the region now known as Mesoamerica, people cultivated corn, also known as maize, from a wild grass called teosinte, which means “mother of corn” in the Nahuatl language.
The transformation of teosinte at the hands of Native peoples started corn’s path to becoming a modern, global superfood. Corn as it exists today should be heralded as one of the first successes of human ingenuity.
Related: The artistry of corn husk baskets
Employees at Three Sisters Nixtamal carry on an ancient and all-natural process invented by Indigenous Mesoamericans called nixtamalization.
“When you nixtamalize the corn, it slowly dissolves the outer seed coat in the alkalinity of the limestone. We bring the corn up to a boil. … Then we turn the heat off and allow it to steep,” Ferbel-Azcárate said. “In the morning, we just wash away the lime water, … and it’s ready to be ground into fresh corn masa. ...
“The cool thing about all this machinery is that it’s really just replicating the original tools that we’ve used for thousands of years,” he added.
Making tortillas the traditional way is a major ingredient in Three Sisters Nixtamal’s effort to honor Native cultivation. “People think of tortillas from an industrialized point, not from a cultural, deep-rooted point,” explained Azcárate-Ferbel.
Down at Xicha Brewing in Salem, corn is all over the menu with nods to traditions as well.
Spelled without the stylized X, chicha was the first fermented beverage of the Americas — and it’s made from corn. Taking a page out of historic recipe books, the brewery’s Chela beer is brewed with flaked corn.
“I’m really excited to see, as corn continues to make such a big impact in the culinary world, that there ought to be more corn available for brewing as well,” said Matt Dakopolos, Xicha’s brewer.
When Xicha opened in 2017, it became the first Latine-owned brewery in Oregon. It’s since opened two more locations — another in Salem and one in Eugene.
Xicha’s expansion reflects Oregon’s changing population: Hispanic residents are the fastest-growing ethnic demographic in the state. According to the 2020 census, about 14% of Oregonians identify as Hispanic or Latino.
“Salem has just recently gone through this transformation that more and more diversity’s happening. Luckily, we’re kind of at the forefront of it,” said Ricardo Antúnez, chef and co-owner of Xicha Brewing.
Growing corn in a drier climate
As Oregon’s population changes, so does the state’s climate.
Lucas Nebert, a sustainable agriculture researcher, has spent years studying the farming of corn and other crops in Oregon. His emphasis is in dryland farming — figuring out how to farm with less water, in drier conditions.
He’s not worried about corn going away any time soon.
“Corn is so versatile, it’s adapted to the jungles, it is adapted to the Saskatchewan region in Canada, and everywhere in between — it’s a very adaptable crop. And not only in terms of the climate it adapts to, but also whatever culinary values that people place on it and see in it, corn can adapt that way,” said Nebert.
While most corn in the U.S. goes into animal feed, high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol, the grain’s cultural ties can drive farming, too — the Oaxacan green corn grown by Nebert and others at Myrtle Creek Farm is made into tortillas at Three Sisters Nixtamal.
Nebert points to a big use of corn: “It really has a lot to give in particular to Latinx cuisine. There’s a growing Latinx community in Oregon.”
As research mounts and farming techniques are honed, corn is poised to become an even larger force in Oregon agriculture.
On a sunny day last August, the vibe at the Aumsville Corn Festival was undeniably Americana. Which makes sense for an event dedicated to the foundational crop of the Americas.
After a parade in the downtown core, featuring corn costumes and vehicles decorated with stalks, volunteers slung tons of cobs with melted butter for the masses.
Later, rowdy crowds cheered on children and adults who competed in speed corn-eating races. Scenes will likely be similar at this year’s festival, the 55th, on Saturday, Aug. 19.
Corn may be the most American food, but as the state’s people and climate change, it will increasingly become an Oregon food, as well.
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