It is early evening in Central Vermont, the sun is setting in the distance, and the aroma of fresh cut hay fills the air. As my hands quickly work, shucking a mix of dry ears of golden yellow and deep maroon flint corn, my mind wanders through thoughts of sustenance and sustainability. I have been waiting just over ninety days for this monumental harvest of Roy’s Calais Flint corn. The stalks, husks and silks are field dried. I plan to shelter the corn for further drying before I shell the cobs and store the bounty in a closed jar until I am ready to consume it. I am grateful to have such a beautiful harvest.
The intriguing cultural history teamed with the enthusiastic pursuit of saving the variety drew me to grow Roy’s Calais Flint corn. It is said to be one of few varieties of corn planted in Vermont in 1816 that produced a reliable crop during what was known as the “Year without a Summer”. The eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in April of 1815 caused an ash cloud which filled the upper atmosphere and blanketed the northern hemisphere. There were critical food shortages throughout the world as a result of the dark, cold, and at times snowy growing season of 1816.
It is, of course, hard to know if this corn really survived, but these kinds of stories are nonetheless interesting and part of what makes these varieties special. Our friend and corn breeder Dave Christensen says that Roy’s is the second earliest corn variety he has ever grown out of hundreds. His Painted Mountain corn is first and actually has a little Roy’s blood in it.
The heritage of Roy’s Calais Flint corn probably hales from similar corn varieties historically grown by the Abenaki Tribe of the Northeast region of the United States and areas of Quebec, Canada. Over the course of time, seed exchanges between hands led the corn to be sown in the fields of pioneer farmers Roy and Ruth Fair of North Calais, Vermont in the 1930’s. Subsequent generations of community farmers kept the strain in production. In 1996, Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds, obtained the corn from a collection of local growers. Inbred genes were removed from the corn through a series of seed selections and it was produced under organic certification. High Mowing Organic Seeds reintroduced the heirloom seed as Roy’s Calais Flint corn in honor of its history.
As I complete my task at hand, I am filled with a sense of compassion and gratification for the collected efforts taken to continue to keep heirloom seeds in circulation and available to growers. All heirlooms crops offer unique characteristics; Roy’s Calais Flint corn stands out in the field for being well adapted to thriving in regions with short growing seasons, its eye catching colors, and its nutritional content. I hear the corn has a buttery creamy flavor; I am looking forward to milling my own homemade polenta and cornmeal this winter.
Roy’s Calais Flint Corn has been included in the US Ark of Taste program. To qualify for the Ark of Taste program, food products must be:
- Outstanding in terms of taste—as defined in the context of local traditions and uses
- At risk biologically or as culinary traditions
- Sustainably produced
- Culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, ethnicity or traditional production practice
- Produced in limited quantities, by farms or by small-scale processing companies