The Landscape of Corn
And When Not A Cornfield Is A Cornfield

455 The Not A Cornfield is, once again, not a cornfield, but is back to being just the Cornfields. NAC photo by Steve Rowell THE CORN IS GONE FROM downtown Los Angeles. The harvest was the last event in a nine month project known as Not A Cornfield, which involved planting 32 acres of corn in a former railyard brownfield near Chinatown known generally over the years, for some reason, as the Cornfields. Not A Cornfield was conceived by the artist Lauren Bon, as an artwork, or, more accurately, as a nexus for a network of converging activities, events, lectures, screenings, and artforms.

The land, between the LA River and Downtown, is scheduled to become a state park. In the meantime, for less than a year, Not A Cornfield LLC took over the space, starting in the summer of 2005. The project brought in hundreds of truckloads of dirt to lay on top of the brownfield ground, then formed furrows, lined with irrigation pipe, and planted corn.

While the corn grew from July to November, Not A Cornfield became a social space, free and open to the public, with scheduled and unscheduled activities. Films were screened, talks and discussions were presented, music was performed, and people caroused, in clearings in the corn, and at the construction trailer (and yurt) compound at the entrance to the site. A central path, cut through the middle of the oblong field, enabled visitors to walk through a corridor of corn for nearly half a mile, towards the silhouetted downtown skyline.

As the corn aged, dried, and turned brown, it was like a Halloween maize maze in January. Openings and new paths were cut into the fields, some resembling crop circles. Some stalks were grouped into bushels, or shocks, to help define large, circular galleries for events, and elaborate lighting was installed that mirrored constellations during the winter solstice.The corn was picked, and an estimated 137,694 ears of corn were hung on the fence along the commuter rail tracks.

When it was time to clear the field, a John Deere 9660 combine came in and mowed the field down, churning up the stalks into mulch that was raked, baled, and used to construct a monument, known unofficially as "corn-henge." The ears of dried corn were also fed into the machine and the decobbed kernels were decanted from the combine's hopper into large bins, then sifted, and bagged for distribution as seed corn to homeless shelters, community gardens, and correctional facilities.

While it is sad to see this unusual and dramatic physical and social artwork gone, it led us to ponder the larger ideas of corn in our lives, and in America. . .

456 Frito-Lay's Kern Plant, serving up cornchips to the Southland. CLUI photoPortions of this essay were presented at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, as part of a public discussion about the Not A Cornfield project, given by Matthew Coolidge, of the CLUI, on a panel with artist Lauren Bon, and critic/curator Ralph Rugoff, on October 5, 2005.

The American Landscape of Corn

The Lower 48 states of the USA is 1.9 billion acres in size. Of that, about 30% (600 million acres) is forested, another 30% (580 million acres) is grassland and rangeland used by cattle and such. 10% is called "nonproductive," from an agricultural point of view, places like wetlands and deserts. 20% is cropland (450 million acres). On this, corn is America's largest crop, covering 81.6 million acres, about one quarter of all crops, an amount that adds up to about 4% of the land cover of the Lower 48. This is about the same amount of land that is urbanized/suburbanized. This is also almost half of the world's production of corn.

80% of the corn produced in the USA goes to feed livestock, especially cows. The American livestock industry is the largest global consumer of corn, but 15-20% of our corn is exported to other countries, like Japan, where it feeds Japanese cows.

The biggest corn processor in the world is the Archer Daniels Midland corporation, headquartered in Decatur, Illinois. They have 205 manufacturing facilities worldwide, 13,000 railcars, 1,200 trucks, and over 2,000 river barges (said to be the largest fleet in the world) for moving their product around. Three distinct plants operate at the Decatur complex, connected to each other by pipelines. The East Plant at Decatur is probably the largest corn products factory in the world. It processes corn at a rate of 600,000 bushels a day. What's a bushel? 4 pecks. And a unit of volume, 1.2 cubic feet, about 35 liters. A semi tractor truck can carry 920 bushels.

Though the fuel additive ethanol has recently surpassed high fructose corn syrup as the largest non animal-feed use of corn, the largest direct consumption of corn by humans in the USA is by ingesting corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is found in numerous processed food products in the United States, where, unlike in other countries, due to the economy of large scale industrial production by companies like ADM, it is a less expensive sweetener than other sugars, like cane and beet. The vast majority of corn syrup is not eaten, but drunk in the form of soda pop, of which 12 billion gallons are consumed every year in the United States. The average American drinks 15 fluid ounces of soda a day, with about 14 teaspoons of corn syrup in it. A 48 oz "big gulp" has a full cup of corn syrup. It adds up to about 70 pounds of corn syrup per person per year.

The largest supplier of corn syrup sweetened drinks is the Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta, with over 40% of the nation's carbonated soft drink market. Their biggest product, Coke Classic, is still the most consumed sweetened carbonated beverage in America. Coke's other brands include Sprite, Minute Maid and Nestea. Not far behind, with just over 30% of the market, is PepsiCo, headquartered in Purchase, New York, up the river from Manhattan. In addition to the cola rival Pepsi, the company owns Mountain Dew, Slice, the Sobe drink line, Gatorade, and Tropicana (there is a lot of sweetener in orange juice too).

Corn as solid, human food comes mostly in the form of corn chip snacks. About a billion bags of tortilla and tostada snacks are sold each year, as part of a $2 billion corn chip industry. The Frito-Lay brand dominates the industry, with 80% of the market share. Frito-Lay, headquartered in Plano, Texas, was formed by a merger of Elmer Doolin's "Frito" fried corn snack company and Herman Lay's potato chip company, in 1961. Based in Nashville, Lay's company grew by purchasing production plants and distribution networks in the southeast, consolidating what was generally a regional industry of small local producers. By 1956, it was the largest potato chip company in the country, but even so, it had just over 1,000 employees. Lay was the exclusive distributor of the Frito snack, the primary product of Doolin's Frito Company, since 1945. As Lay's distribution network grew, so too did the popularity of Fritos. Following the 1961 merger, the company expanded its network to cover the whole nation.

Frito-Lay owns the three most popular corn chip brands in the country, Fritos, Doritos and Tostitos. They also own Rold Gold pretzels, Lays potato chips, Ruffles, Funyons, and Cheetos. The company operates hundreds of distribution centers and dozens of plants across the country, where they manufacture most of these products together. Frito-Lay is consolidating their production, movong more activity to their largest and most technologically advanced plants, including those at Lynchburg, Virginia; Bakersfield, California; Fayetteville, Tennessee; and Jonesboro, Arkansas; as well as at some older, but high-performing plants in Killingly, Connecticut; and Perry, Georgia. Currently, Frito- Lay's plant at Frankfort, Indiana is the largest "salty snacks plant" in the world.

Notably, since 1965, Frito-Lay has been owned by PepsiCo. Nothing makes you thirsty like a cornchip.

457 A compression of the rural and urban, the corn of Not A Cornfield encroached on the skyline of Los Angeles. NAC photo by Steve Rowell