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Roy’s Calais flint corn

Zea mays

Roy’s Calais flint corn is an open-pollinated flint corn originally cultivated by the western Abenaki (Sokoki) people in Vermont, and subsequently grown and maintained by pioneer farmers, including Roy and Ruth Fair of North Calais, VT. In 1996 Tom Stearns obtained the seed from local farmers like Mike and Doug Guy, who had received the corn and seed-saving information from Roy Fair. Tom Stearns crossed all of the inbred strains and grew out the variety, reintroducing it through his company, High Mowing Seeds of Wolcott, VT.

The strain is somewhat variable, but plants typically grow 6 to 7 feet tall and bear 8- to 12-inch-long ears with eight rows of kernels that vary in color from golden yellow to dark maroon red. The red gene is recessive, and a higher percentage of red kernels must be planted to maintain the color variation. According to a report from Cornell, the seed does not germinate as well in cold spring soil as well as some other older varieties; yet its brief time to harvest (90-95 days to dry field corn) makes Roy’s Calais' a reliable cultivar for short-season growing areas. According to Tom Stearns, it is the second shortest-season corn variety in the world, after 'Painted Mountain', a modern OP variety for which Roy’s Calais is one of many parents.

In taste evaluations of different corns conducted by Fedco Seeds, the cornmeal ground from Roy’s Calais flint corn has proven superior in terms of taste and nutritional quality. A little sticky it can be eaten as a sweet corn, but is mostly used for posole or hominy. Its protein content is significantly higher than most flint corns (11% to 12% instead of 9%). It is rendered more nutritious through the process of nixtamalization, which involves soaking the seeds overnight in water and a small amount of fine wood ashes or hydrated lime, then slow-cooking in the same way as soaked dried beans. The resulting hominy (posole) is rich in niacin and complex protein, and it can be used in many dishes (soups and stews, polenta) and as masa flour for tortillas or tamales. The corn has a buttery aroma and a rich, creamy flavor.

The history and cultural significance of this corn is great. Bands of the western Abenaki (Sokoki) people grew corn and other crops (including beans and squash) for centuries, and it is estimated that some 250 acres of land east of Lake Champlain was under cultivation at one time.

This flint corn, or some closely related variety, was the only type to survive and produce a crop in Vermont during the infamous Year Without a Summer (1816), when snow fell in June and killing frosts struck in every summer month. The unusually cold weather resulted from the ash cloud that filled the upper atmosphere and blanketed the Northern Hemisphere following the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora – located halfway around the globe, on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies.

In rural areas of New England, and in many parts of western and central Europe, the disastrous growing season of 1816 precipitated what has been described as “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world.” This remarkable year, in New England history and folklore, has also been dubbed The Mackerel Year (presumably from the increased reliance on fish in the local diet) and "Eighteen Hundred and Near Froze to Death". And, although certain crops, like potatoes and apples, produced record harvests in New England, the widespread failure of the corn harvest throughout the region represented a serious problem for both humans and livestock. Corn prices skyrocketed on the Philadelphia market, going from $1.50 a bushel in April 1816 to $3.11 a bushel in May 1817.

In Vermont, some rural families were said to have subsisted on hedgehogs, boiled nettles, and clover heads. At the same time, some settlements became virtual ghost towns overnight, as farmers either sold out or simply abandoned their homes for greener pastures in the newly settled territories to the west. At one time, Granby, VT had been a prosperous town with more than 100 families; after the Cold Summer of 1816, however, only three families still remained there.

Although a few regional seed producers now carry this variety, it is still largely unknown and under-appreciated. For instance, the variety was not offered through the 2007 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook; it is also not listed in USDA’s flint corn collection. Its main potential is for growers who live in northern or short-season areas, who are often unable to grow most varieties of flour and flint corns to maturity and allow them to dry sufficiently in the field before the first autumn frosts.

Photo courtesy of Heather Jerrett, High Mowing Seeds

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