Corn, it’s what we do.

Corn, it’s what we do in Indiana. We measure our summers by the height of the corn. With days of sufficient rain and hot sun, the corn flourishes and towers over us and the fields appear to be vast blankets of lush dark green. When the days began to fade quicker and earlier in the evening, the progress of the corn beginning to dry becomes our clock to measure how long until Fall and Winter will overtake us. When the August sun has sucked all the moisture from the corn and the September wind blows through the long rows, the rattle of the leaves sounds like the bones of every farmer who has tilled the land. Then comes the harvest. Machines as wide as a county road strip the fields, our horizons expand again and we feel suddenly exposed and naked.

Having grown up in rural Indiana, I’m as used to corn in the summer as I am the hot, wet blanket feel of a humid July day. I never tire of teasing my city friends who freaked out every time they visited me, driving county roads bordered by towering corn plants on every side and from every direction even at intersections. They especially felt overpowered at twilight, hurrying to get to my house before full darkness pressed down on them as the corn seemed to get closer and closer to the sides of the car!

I heard a farmer casually state that the custom in his family was to plant corn on one side of the family farm, soy beans on the other. When asked why they did that, the young man paused for a moment as if he had never considered the question, then said, “Well, I guess it was because Dad didn’t like being surrounded by corn all around the house all summer. That can be pretty claustrophobic.”

Corn is so common here, it’s hard to remember it’s not exclusive to Indiana. In fact, corn is vital in the agricultural system of America. Its grown in nearly every state and its importance to the economy is not only in the actual corn on the ground, but in the research, breeding and promotion of corn and corn products.

In 2013, Indiana corn went 36% to Feed & Distillers, 26% to Ethanol production, 11% to foreign exports, 10% held for future use, 10% to starch and food production and the rest…well, just to Other.

As far back as the mid 1700’s farmers had to struggle with not only the problems of actually growing crops, but also how to use and store them in a way to maximize the profits. Crops fed their families, either directly or by feeding their animals, or by the sale or trade value of the surplus. Think of corn as money and you begin to understand early American economy.

Think about the huge grain bins that dot the midwestern countryside today and you realize that storing quantities of corn or grain until it can be sold or used is a bit of a problem. Pioneer farmers had that same problem. Early on our forefathers discovered a good way to store and monetize corn was to convert it into something more 1) portable, 2) economically rewarding, and 3) fun. Look back at the list of uses for corn in 2013 and note that 36% goes for feed and distillers and realize that once a farmer feeds his livestock, making whiskey solved the problem of how to store a grain that molds when it gets wet and is the favorite food of rats and other varmints when stored in a barn.

Whiskey storage barrels

In early America, distilling corn and other surplus grain into whiskey also solved another problem…stored away in wooden barrels, it only got better as time went on, so it was like money in the bank, earning interest every day, a win/win for the farmer. Making whiskey was not bootlegging in those days, it was sound economic business.

At least until 1791, when the government, as governments are wont to do, decided taxes would be the best way to reduce the huge debt incurred by the Revolutionary War. The new government of the United States imposed a tax on whiskey. The first tax on a domestic product, this “whiskey tax” was hugely unpopular, especially in western Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. Since whiskey was an important commodity in the barter system that was the foundation of the frontier economy, this tax was like taxing money and was most burdensome to the poorer farmers and businessmen who did not have access to ready cash for their transactions.

The Whiskey Rebellion is one of those footnotes to history we don’t study much, but it played an important role in the westward movement.

There was a violent reaction and many of the protesters simply did not comply with the law. In 1794, more than 500 armed men attacked the home of the tax inspector, General John Neville. The government responded by sending 13,000 militia into Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to squash the rebellion. The rebels disbursed to their homes with no bloodshed, but the government, while proving they had the will to enforce their laws, still found this tax difficult to collect.

As a direct result of this “government outrage” many of those pioneer farmers and entrepreneurs decided to move on into wilderness beyond the reach of taxes and government and that, I believe is when my ancestors left western Pennsylvania and headed to what today is known as the Bourbon Capitol of the World, Nelson County, Kentucky. There seems to be an interesting correlation there!