Finding regional roots in corn that has a mind of its own

When you think of corn, it’s easy to imagine sprawling Midwestern fields blanketed by neat rows of yellow and green stalks. They’re all the same color, the same height — identical in almost every way.

But if you were to have cornbread or beer made from Tuxpeño corn, you’d have to take that mental image and throw it out. Because for this variety, it’s about as far from the truth as you could get.

Tuxpeño corn is what’s called a landrace grain. Landrace grains are semi-wild, ancient varieties that readily adapt to whatever environment they are planted in. Seeds are not systematically selected for a particular trait, but are instead allowed to vary over time and from place to place.

That adaptability means Tuxpeño corn grown on the coast will taste a bit different than when it’s grown in the mountains. But that’s exactly what David Bauer, a seed preservationist who cultivates Tuxpeño and other landrace crops, is aiming for. He is the owner of Farm & Sparrow, a seed project and mill based out of Mars Hill, NC. Farm & Sparrow is dedicated to celebrating landrace grains that express “regional terroir.”

David prefers these landrace varieties over the more common heirloom grains, which come from plants that possess the same traits as their parents. Heirloom seeds tend to be handed down by families or organizations through the generations.

”For a crop to really reflect the place where it is, and reflect its current time, you need that kind of genetic variability from the really old landrace varieties,” David says. “At this point, heirloom varieties are treated kind of like historical relics — as opposed to landrace varieties that actively reflect the seasons and the time and place.”

That’s what drew David to Tuxpeño. He calls it the best all-around corn for its taste and versatility. It’s a beautiful corn variety with a nuanced, buttery flavor that leans more towards savory than sweet. Although most of the kernels are a soft yellow, some are pink, orange, or white.

As a celebrated baker, David appreciates not just the grain itself, but where it comes from. Although Tuxpeño has ancient origins in Central America, David’s friend pulled it out of a Tennessee seed bank run by the USDA and gave the seeds to him. David began working with the seeds in 2013, and enlisted the help of small farmers to grow the ancient grain for Farm & Sparrow. It ended up being a big success, and David now has coaxed Tuxpeño into growing along coastal and central Virginia, the North Carolina coast and mountains, and in central Georgia.

“The grain isn’t always sure what to do in a new place,“ David says. “But then once it has three or four years to get settled in and adapt, then it can be really resilient.”

Tuxpeño is an extremely hardy variety of corn that can withstand ferocious winds, floods and hurricanes — even Hurricane Matthew, a devastating hurricane that caused heavy flooding along the coast in 2016.

“All the corn in three counties was essentially down,” David says. “I assumed the crop was lost. But the farmers called me and they were all excited and baffled. And they were like, ‘We just canoed three miles to the back of our farm to harvest the best ears for seed in standing water up to our knees. Nothing else survived.”

This resilience makes Tuxpeño particularly relevant as we deal with the unpredictability of climate change, David says.

Tuxpeño’s resilience and versatility also intimately connects its flavor to where it’s grown — its deep roots pull up a diverse array of minerals and nutrients from the soil, unlike conventional corn varieties that tend to have shallow roots. Tuxpeño is also organically grown without artificial fertilizers or chemicals in order to maximize that nuanced flavor that comes from the soil.

David got connected with Epiphany when he turned Farm & Sparrow from a bakery into a milling business. He wanted to be involved with people all over the grain industry– chefs, bakers, tortilla makers, baristas, brewers. He mentioned this to his friend, Joshua Bellamy, who owns a bakery in Raleigh.

“I really wanted to work with brewers and to help create a regionally-distinct beer,” David says. “But it was hard to get anyone to break from their very cozy profit margins to do something like that. And Joshua told me to talk to Sebastian, because he’s kind of in the same boat.”

Farm & Sparrow and Epiphany teamed up to create a small batch of Tuxpeño corn malt for Burial Brewing in Asheville. David visited Epiphany’s Durham malt house to drop off the grain and stayed for a long time to talk. Since then, we’ve worked together on small-batch malts for other breweries.

But as for that first round from Burial, David didn’t get a taste. The beer, ‘Apt Sacrifice,’ sold out before he could get his hands on a bottle. Better luck next time.

David is currently working with small farmers across the region to plant Tuxpeño seeds this spring. It will be ready to harvest in October, and ready to be malted soon after that. He’s interested to see what this next year’s crop will taste like.

“It has so much variability from year to year and from place to place that the flavor can shift quite a bit,” David says. “But it’s always so balanced and so nuanced. I guess that’s what I love about it.”