Corn. What do you think of when you hear the word? Bright yellow…on the cob? Perhaps a family gathering or late summer picnic. Popcorn. That familiar yellow or white color. So, when someone hands you a rainbow-hued ear, so vibrant and beautiful that you question its natural origins and edibility, it has a way of completely blindsiding you, throwing off any pre-conceived notions of what corn should be and what it should look like.
Enter the ‘Glass Gem’. Never before have I felt so humbled by corn, so in awe, as I run my fingers along the rows of dried kernels, admiring the deep purples, the golden ambers, the pink and the blue. Indeed, from this humble ear sprouted the desire to learn the origins of this incredible plant. To know the story of these magic seeds and how they came to be, sitting prettily in my hand, wanting to feel the cool smoothness of the kernels along the cob. Caring for it. How does it like its soil? How much water is ideal? Where can I get some?! I NEED that corn!!
… And thus it starts. The ‘gateway’ corn.
What is now known as ‘Glass Gem’ or ‘Carl’s Glass Gem’ started with Carl Barnes, a collector of corn with half Cherokee, half Scotch-Irish ancestry. “As a youth, Carl began to seek out his Cherokee roots, exploring the knowledge of his own ancestors and of Native American traditions in general, by learning from his grandfather. Much of this quest centered on the ceremonies surrounding planting, harvesting, and honoring seeds,” says Greg Schoen — a student of Carl Barnes and successor of Barnes’ work on the ‘Glass Gem’ corn — in his article The Origins and Journey of ‘Carl’s Glass Gems’ Rainbow Corn.
Barnes worked with crossing many types of older corn varieties and noticed that traditional expressions of the corn which had been “lost” over time began to re-emerge in his work, the hidden genes becoming prominent once again. He worked to reintroduce these ancient corn lines to the elders of the tribes in Oklahoma, and “this helped their people in reclaiming their cultural identities. The corn is, to them, literally the same as their bloodline, their language, and their sense of who they are,” says Schoen. Some of the ‘rainbow corn’ that Barnes had been working with was a cross of Osage corns and Pawnee miniature corns, with a shorter ear and more pastel colors. As the friendship between Barnes and Schoen grew, Barnes gifted Schoen with a handful of the corn kernels to grow himself. Schoen remarks, “I was honored and grateful to receive it … at that moment it came to me loud and clear: ‘This seed is going to change things.’”
Schoen went on to grow the rainbow corn on land in Santa Clara Canyon, New Mexico, where he encouraged additional crossings between the rainbow corn and vigorous Southwestern strains because he felt that the “new blood” from the field corns would strengthen the rainbow corn’s gene pool. The result was incredibly vibrant kernels on a broader, bigger cob. As he distributed photos of the corn, he used various names, but ‘Glass Gem’ was the one that stuck.
Schoen then set out on a journey to spread the corn, sending it across the globe — with recipients in Africa, the Middle East, and India. Eventually, samples of the seed were sent to Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona. Under a grow-out contract, ‘Glass Gem’ seeds arrived at Mer-Girl Gardens, a small organic farm in La Villita, New Mexico, run by husband and wife team Ron Boyd and Debora Clare. This is the origination point of the ‘Glass Gem’ corn seed available for purchase through Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company (which, incidentally, features a photo of the ‘Glass Gem’ on the cover of its 2016 Whole Seed Catalog).
Amongst some of the comments received by Ron about the corn were those along the lines of “Nature doesn’t do this; it has to be GMO.”
“That’s how distant we are from our food,” Ron says. Maize has developed a bad reputation in recent decades, and in many ways, rightfully so. How do we find ourselves in the midst of such a tragedy? How did our minds become clouded with the idea that all corn is tainted, poison? (Or, boring?) GMO corn is one of the largest crops grown in the US, with questions about its safety still on the table. Ron feels that transgenic organisms are dishonoring creation. “I think it’s dangerous,” he says. As amazing a spectacle as it would be to see a massive, thousand-acre swath of land blanketed solely by rainbow ears of corn, it’s not going to happen. It shouldn’t happen. The practice of monocrop farming is unsustainable. Enthusiasts of the rainbow corn can rest assured that the beautiful colors they see are a result of natural gene expression and not of genetic modification.
Ron and Debora take great care in producing organic seed, having infinitely more in common with Native corn growers of yesteryear than with the agri-giants and bio-tech industry of today. They care about the seed; they care about the corn. Ultimately, they care about the people. After the ‘Glass Gem’ crop is grown, it is allowed to mature in the field, drying completely until the husks are papery and brown. Then it is harvested by hand and brought to drying racks. From the racks, the corn is processed through an old, turn-of-the-century manual sheller. After the initial processing, all 400 pounds are gone over, kernel by kernel, removing the cracked and withered seeds.
Ron notes he has seen more diversity in expression in the ‘Glass Gem’ than in any other corn he has grown. The stalks range from 3-10 feet tall, and there can be diversity in the color and shape of the stalks, as well, with some being oval-shaped rather than round. Many of the plants send up a single stalk, while some of the plants produce tillers (several stalks from one seed). While all cobs within a tiller group will have the same pattern, shape, and color sequence, as they are all one ‘family’, the plant right next door can have a completely different color sequence. There is a huge range of expression from one little packet, and what this means for you, as a grower, is that you get a huge variety of plants to work with.
“Over the years, we’ve both saved a lot of seed,” Ron says of Debora and himself. “But saving seed alone is just part of the picture. Then there’s … what have we done to strengthen the seed?” Ron relies on open-pollinated seeds to give a strong, reliable plant: “Every time you plant it, you can make it better and better … You can work with it and make it something else … Open-pollinated, roguing, selection, that’s how all of our food system came to be what it is. It feels really good to be a part of [it].” Open-pollinated seeds, like ‘Glass Gem’ corn, are defined by the offspring — they reproduce true to parent and possess stable characteristics from one generation to the next. By roguing out the weak, the droopy, the “ugly,” growers can selectively choose the phenotypes they wish to be dominant in future generations.
Because the ‘Glass Gem’ is the fruit of many years of labor touched by generations of hands, Ron wants to emphasize that it isn’t just his work. It is important to him to show that a tremendous number of people have helped to shape the ‘Glass Gem’ into what it is today and also that it’s a team effort to operate Mer-Girl Gardens. Of the farm he says, “People are welcome here. Come help us plant the corn. Come stay in the beautiful space [and] help out with some small aspects.”
“The ‘Glass Gem’ is a magic corn — the way the doors are opening,” says Ron. He mentions he took some of the corn to market, not to sell, just to show, and some people loved it so much they were angry that he wasn’t selling it. Ron says many people have been excited about it, and though Mer-Girl Gardens regularly provides all kinds of veggies and fruits, nothing has garnered attention like the ‘Glass Gem.’ This past summer, Ron and Debora brought amazing apples to the local farmers’ market — 10 or so different varieties each week, heirloom varieties that most people have never heard of. We got a “good response, but nothing like the response to this corn,” says Ron.
The two most common questions about this corn are: “Is it only ornamental? Is it edible?” Nature produces an amazing variety of size, color, and shape, but many people think that “if it’s not yellow or white, it must be only ornamental,” says Ron. “Often it is sold as ornamental because it is very ornamental — it’s beautiful. Well, to me, I’m thinking, it’s corn — of course you can eat it.” Ron shares that he has made posole (traditional Mexican hominy stew) and popcorn (ideally from the more bulbous, teardrop-shaped kernels, rather than the flatter ones) from ‘Glass Gem,’ and Schoen mentions also using the corn for cornmeal.
On the Mer-Girl Gardens Facebook page, a photo of the ‘Glass Gem’ was posted just as it was maturing. “People are asking for it,” says Ron, who understands that people are drawn to the corn. The ‘Glass Gem’ has admirers across the globe: India, France, the UK. The world we live in today allows seed to propagate farther than it ever could before within a single growing season. The internet gives us tremendous advantages with moving our products out to the far reaches of the country, even around the world. The extent to which seeds can be shared is phenomenal.
With ‘Glass Gem’ being grown in so many varied localities, we are able to watch the process of it adapting by bioregion. Allowing these seeds to flourish in so many different microclimates helps to boost the strength of the variety — the natural variation in each environment enabling it to exhibit different expressions that are best suited to the particular climates.
The ‘Glass Gem’ will appeal particularly to backyard gardeners who are enamored by its beauty. “This corn is an excellent type for introducing children to the magic of planting and harvesting,” says Schoen. He also notes that in planting the corn, “Be aware that you may have some interesting insights and experiences arise in the course of growing it, as there seems to be a certain alchemy that takes place between the corn and the person who plants and tends it. You may begin to sense what the indigenous peoples have always known of their seed — that it is truly one and the same as bloodline, language and spiritual identity. That in the seed we keep and plant is contained the sacred code of life.”
The ‘Glass Gem’ is a “gateway,” opening towards a love of cultivation, a love of corn. To know how much devotion and care go into creating a crop that is beautiful AND edible, to revel in the knowledge of just how many hands over so many generations have touched that corn in one form or another, brings hope that this corn will instill an interest and wonder in where our food, specifically corn, comes from and will both encourage a reverence for seed and foster a sense of environmental stewardship, implanting a desire to share in the history of this corn. We can all put our mark on the page of history that is corn; it is being written now.
So take your handful of seed and run with it. Sow like there’s no tomorrow. Sow like tomorrow is in your hands. Let the ‘Glass Gem’ be the gateway to brighter days. A rainbow in an otherwise dark world, this maze of maize. Hands shaped this corn — remember that, as you hold it in your hand. Hands, not laboratories or machines. There is a difference.
“These are the seeds that sing.” — White Eagle / Carl Barnes
Brief history of the couple and how they operate together on the farm as a team:
Ron Boyd and Debora Clare broke ground on Mer-Girl Gardens in 2003. Initially, many crops were grown and turned under to increase soil quality, then they began growing crops to sell at local farmers’ markets and supplied some produce to natural grocers and restaurants in Taos, NM. Over the course of several years, they grew vegetables and fruits, including grafting a large assortment of heirloom apple trees. In 2010, they received organic certification from the USDA, and a new irrigation system was implemented on the farm. The year 2015 marks the second season for wholesaling seed crops. They also have their property listed on Airbnb to allow for a greater number of visitors to stay at the farm and share in the experience. Ron calls the Airbnb residence Debora’s art installation — and calls her the goddess of the heart. Ron and Debora exhibit the classic gender-role jobs in their operations on the farm. Ron works in the field, primarily, though shows a deep appreciation for Debora’s assistance with planting and harvesting. Debora takes care of all of the paperwork for the farm and runs the Airbnb, for which Ron says he is simply the maintenance man. The property has much history, with roles as a stagecoach stop and inn. At apple pressing time, says Ron, he can really feel the old-timers laughing and smiling.
Farming organically and sustainably is not the easiest path to take, but for Ron and Debora the extra care is worth the effort, and knowing they’re making changes that could impact future generations positively is rewarding in and of itself. Organic farming and sustainability seem to go hand in hand, and the correlation between the two seems especially strong at Mer-Girl Gardens. “I don’t know what the future brings, but if our food system is dependent on fossil fuels, for sure we’re in trouble,” Ron says, showing off his ‘triketor’, a three-wheeled bike frame set up with removable and adjustable attachments to cultivate the field. “I love tractors, but I don’t need a tractor. I don’t want compaction on my soil. I don’t want all the problems that come with a machine. And I love machines, but I think there’s other ways to do it,” Ron says. He proves his point with the ingenious invention that he designed and had a man in Montana build. The machine has been in use on the farm for 3 years now and is ‘green’ in more ways than one: it’s painted ‘John Deere Green’, plus it runs on renewable energy — Ron laughs and pats his legs. People sometimes make fun of it and question the efficacy of using it to plow, but Ron says he doesn’t really plow. “To cultivate, ideally, just skim the ground to get air in the soil and for weed competition,” he says, and his triketor does that job admirably, so the fields are planted according to the measurements of the attachments on the triketor.
The push towards sustainability and away from fossil fuels extends further than the unusual cultivation mechanisms at Mer-Girl. Ron has also built a water wheel that sits out on the acequia (irrigation ditch), which pumps water up to his garden using hydropower. “I think I could develop a wheel that could irrigate the place — short of electric … Bicycle chain on that one, but it’s working well.” Ron hopes to literally reinvent the wheel, with plans for a new, more efficient wheel in place for next year.
Of course, Mer-Girl Farm is a relatively small-scale operation, and Ron understands that the methods used on his farm don’t work well on all farms, but he stresses the importance of minimizing our dependence on fossil fuels on the farm.
Since the writing of this article, we learned of the passing of Carl L. Barnes. The following is part of a memorial tribute by his friend Greg Schoen.
“May his memory live on in the sacred seeds he stewarded and the numerous seed savers he inspired. Carl was known for his years of work with heritage corn, enabling many Native tribes to recover and reunite with their sacred seeds. He will be remembered for his generosity, wit and humor, and for the seeds he passed to willing hands. These will continue to multiply beyond his time, to nourish and enrich the coming generations…”
His philosophy and teaching could be summed up in three words he repeated so often — ‘The Seed Remembers’.”
Carl L. Barnes
June 18, 1928 – April 16, 2016
Share in the Farm Experience at Mer-Girl Gardens!
Don’t forget to check out our Artists’ Residence and Organic Farm on AirBnB for next season. www.airbnb.com/rooms/2865335
Stay at Mer-Girl Gardens, where ‘Glass Gem’ is grown! A unique experience away from home and one that is truly New Mexico at its best. Our old adobe house is located halfway between Santa Fe and Taos on the Rio Grande. Cozy in the winter and lush, green, and vibrant in the summer, it is the perfect setting for exploring northern New Mexico or just relaxing in the peaceful gardens.Guests have access to gardens, orchards, and 100 acres of private walking roads to the Rio Grande.
This is a quiet place and may often feel like no one is around at all. This house is very unique with its small rooms and handmade feel of double adobe walls and hand hewn beams. The building used to belong to the Church of La Villita, which was built in 1911 and was used as an Inn. “This place is everything that I love about NM: cozy, rustic, handmade and full of the whispers of times past.” — Debora Clare, owner of Mer-Girl Gardens.
Emma is a writer and photographer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She grew up in rural Northern New Mexico, and graduated from the University of New Mexico. A gardener from a young age, she enjoys trying out new, homegrown foods each season. In all of her work, written or visual, she hopes to instill a love and appreciation of nature and an interest in preserving our collective home.