Farmer Turns Geneticist in Quest for Black Kernel

MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA—Maybe this will be the summer for black corn. In a barn as clean as a clinic and as richly arrayed as a curio shop, Dean Strand pried the lid off an old plastic bucket labeled “black by dark red” and sank his hand into the liver-colored kernels inside.

“This is precious stuff to me,” said Mr. Strand, a 55-year old farmer, as he pinched a few of the kernels. “It’s all there is in the world of that color corn seed.”

Mr. Strand said recently that after several years of painstaking effort, he believed that black corn, one of his fondest dreams, would take root and grow this summer, sprouted from the darkest of last year’s dark red seed, or maybe from his trove of dark blue or dark brown seed.

If it does, he will be able to add black to the palette of colors used in the annual redecoration of the Corn Palace, Mitchell’s colossus of “cornceptual” art, as the Chamber of Commerce has labeled it in one of the series of puns on billboards along nearby Interstate 90.

The people of Mitchell have had a Corn Palace since 1892, when it was conceived by the Corn Belt Real Estate Association to promote the abundance of corn and wheat and entice settlers to South Dakota.

Today’s Corn Palace, a civic auditorium complete with onion domes on the roof, seats several thousand people for basketball games, concerts and other events, and draws a half-million people every year to gape at its 13 large exterior murals. The murals, which require six to eight weeks to make, are composed of 275,000 ears of corn that have been split and nailed together to form spacemen, birds, golfers or whatever the current year’s theme provides. This year it is “Building a Nation.”

In the height of the season, 10,000 people fill the streets of Mitchell daily, nearly doubling its population.

“All these little towns are drying up around here,” said Mr. Strand, who not only grows the Corn Palace stock but also supervises the creation of the murals, which are designed by Cal Schultz, a local artist. “If Mitchell didn’t have the Corn Palace, I wonder what our population would be.”

Since Mr. Strand was hired to do this work in 1981, he has expanded the Corn Palace palette to nine colors from three. His new variations are what put the white in a corn-limned cheerleader’s pompoms and the three gradations of brown in a coyote. The variations are all descended from the open-pollinated corn used by American Indians centuries ago. The hard, shiny, rounded kernels are the perfect artistic medium for the palace.

Mr. Strand’s obsession with black corn began several years ago, when he started noticing occasional color variations in the fields of corn he grew for the murals. (He grows other crops commercially.) When Mr. Strand found an ear of red corn, say, with a few light blue rows, he saved the aberrant kernels to plant the next year, hoping to get some ears of light blue.

He also learned to plant his fields—he has 19, some as small as four acres—a minimum of a quarter-mile apart, so that the pollen from one color would not land on the silk of another and produce a mottled ear. It took him about eight years to develop his three solid shads of brown, and since then, he has been doggedly pursuing black.

“He’s one of the coolest guys in the world,” said Zeno W. Wicks 3d, a professor of corn breeding at South Dakota State University. “All on his own, he rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s principles of genetics just by looking at corn and selecting seeds for his crops.”

For some years, Mr. Strand has been concerned that Mitchell’s seasonal guests arrive when the murals look their worst. New murals do not go up until the corn ripens in August, so from May until then, guests are treated to murals well-ravaged by the South Dakota winter.

Mr. Strand proposes creating two sets of removable murals, one of which can be stored in his barn over the winter and hammered into place in early May. If the City Council approves the plan, the city would pay to build metal tracks and a trolley in Mr. Strand’s barn for easy installation and removal of the murals.

But Mr. Strand is stumped about how to protect the murals from birds, which peck year-round at the corn and the 4,800 square feet of decorative borders made from native grasses.
Mr. Strand has tried spraying the murals with a pepper solution, but he says the birds seem to regard this as a form of seasoning. He even shot at the birds in the early morning, but concluded that for every one he killed, five took its place.

In a seeming accommodation to the birds, a row of steeply gabled birdhouses lines the roof of the Corn Palace, just under two of its minor domes. Mr. Strand explained that he and his crew put them up one day when it was too wet to harvest. Just to keep everyone busy, he had them build the birdhouses and finish them off with false entrance holes—just a dollop of black paint.

Have any of those birds ever knocked themselves out trying to dive into those holes?

Mr. Strand repeated the question, then said with a smile, “I sure as heck hope so.”

Reprinted with permission from The New York Times