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CCFB News» July 2023

Planting Seeds

07/10/2023 @ 9:00 am | By Katrina Milton, Director of Ag Literacy

"Knee-high by the Fourth of July” has been an age-old saying about it being a good year for corn if your corn plants are the height of your knees by July 4.


Due to advances in science, including the planting of drought and pest-resistant seeds, most corn is knee-high by mid-June and at least waist or chest-high by the Fourth of July.


Corn has always been an integral part of my family’s Fourth of July celebration. We always had sweet corn at our cookout, along with hamburgers, hotdogs, baked beans, potato salad, and my mom’s red, white, and blue American flag Jell-O cake.


Some farmers swear by the sweetness of their corn and enjoy the taste so much, they eat the corn raw from their fields after picking. For extra sweet sweet corn, I recommend adding a cup of milk and half a stick of butter to your pot as you boil your water.


Sweet corn is “sweet” due to the plant’s naturally-occurring recessive gene. That gene gives the corn a sweet flavor because the kernels contain a higher amount of simple sugars and a lower amount of complex starches. Once corn matures or is harvested, which is when the ear of corn is separated from the stalk, the kernels’ sugars turn to starch. That is why young, fully-formed but not mature sweet corn tastes the sweetest when it is freshly-picked. That is also why field corn, when harvested in the autumn when it is mature, is so hard, starchy, and not sweet.

According to the Illinois Farm Bureau, about 98% of corn grown in Illinois is field corn, also called dent corn due to the kernels’ dented shape. Sweet corn accounts for about 2% of Illinois’ corn, and popcorn less than 1%.

There are more than 4,200 uses for corn, including livestock feed, ethanol for gasoline, cornstarch, corn syrup, corn oil, and corn flour.


A Fourth of July staple, fireworks, are also made using corn. Corn is used to make dextrin, a binding compound that is also found in some glues. Dextrin holds the powders that make fireworks together, including the charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter) in gunpowder. Certain metals and minerals are added to that powdery mixture to give fireworks their color. According to the United States Geological Survey, barium makes fireworks green, strontium red, copper blue, sodium yellow, and other colors can be made by mixing elements, such as titanium, zirconium, and magnesium alloys making a silvery white.


This Fourth of July, as you enjoy a cookout and watch fireworks, remember that some of your favorite summer foods and activities are all thanks to one of Illinois’ top crops: corn. Also, don’t forget that Sweet Corn Appreciation Day is observed in Illinois on August 1!


If you want to share items that you find that are made from corn with me, I’m all ears. Have a corny summer!


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