Knee-high by the Fourth
by Kevin McKelvey
When I was kid, my grandmother would say a good crop of corn was “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” About every Midwest farmer used this saying to judge corn growth, timely rain, and future yields. Around eight or nine, I would walk through our patch of sweet corn at my grandma’s house in western Tipton County and use this measurement to judge how much corn we would eat and freeze in August. On the drives between my grandma’s house and our house near Lebanon, I would stare at the passing fields to judge their height, their yields, how many times the combines would empty their hoppers.
Two days ago on the Fourth of July, my dad brought about five dozen ears of sweet corn. He picked it that day in his big garden near Lebanon he keeps with his neighbors Lester and Joyce. They planted this corn April 5, over a month before the last average killing frost and almost six weeks before corn was planted 50 years ago. Hybridization, cross-breeding, improved seed production, and other factors have moved the planting date back over the years for field corn and sweet corn. But it’s been warm for years in April, so many farmers and gardeners are challenging the last average frost date in late April.
I’m 32, and already, spring comes earlier. Trees bud earlier. The growing season is much longer. Maybe the earth is naturally warming, or maybe we’re in a “hot” cycle. Regardless, human activity has something to do with these increased temperatures and strange weather patterns. Even if we make drastic changes now in the way we produce and use energy, I don’t foresee that temperatures or weather patterns will return to normal in my lifetime.
What I’m concerned about here is my daughter’s lifetime. My wife and I are already obsessed with particulate pollution and air quality, depleted ozone and increased UV rays, chemicals and antibiotics in food. My daughter will experience more awareness, prevention, mitigation, and choices on these issues. She will also experience a longer growing season.
This longer growing season is one dubious positive of climate change. For our local industrial farmers, they have more time to plant corn and soybeans, to establish mature plants before the spring storms, to replant if their fields flood, and to harvest higher yields. For our local sustainable farmers, they can grow and sell an even wider range of fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, stores, local restaurants for more weeks during the summer and fall. This longer growing season will benefit every kind of farmer in the Midwest.
On the Fourth, my daughter devoured two ears—genetics, we said, since my family would have meals of only corn when it was ripe—and she’s not even two years old yet. Her saying will be “corn on the cob by Fourth of July.”