Growing Corn in Osage County, Kansas

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courtesy Karen Keb
Hank amidst his corn crop from 2010.

This year I went a little corn crazy and planted several open-pollinated heirloom corn varieties ranging from hard flints to single-gene sweet varieties. My plan was to reclaim a portion of the chicken run for gardening and to develop a method to capture the substantial nutrients the fowl had left behind. I figured I could consolidate all that excess nitrogen in a lovely stand of heirloom corn.

I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of corn I wanted to grow – I thought at the very least I could crack and feed the grain to the remaining chickens and the stalks to the hogs. And since my Partner in Culinary Crime had been baking with various grinds of an Italian red flint corn called Floriana, I figured we could create all manner of heirloom flour for our own enjoyment. Imagine the taste of corn bread created with meal ground fresh from corn grown where your chickens once roamed! That thought pretty much cemented my plan.

We procured all kinds of corns with names like Bloody Butcher, Mandan Bride, Blue Hopi, Red Strawberry, Hopi Pink, Hickory King, White Flour and several other “Indian” corns. Some seeds came from vendors at the Spring Planting Festival hosted by Baker Creek Seeds down in Mansfield, Missouri. Some came from fellow corn nut and Mother Earth News Editor in Chief Cheryl Long. The remainder arrived in the mail from places such as Seed Savers Exchange.  

With pouches, packets and ears of possibility in hand, I tilled the new corn field in late May – wow, did the pecking, scratching chickens ever mellow my tight Osage County, Kansas, soil – and planted it using a new Cole Planet Jr. walk-behind planter. I had never planted that much corn by hand before, or had that much fun doing it.

May’s rains didn’t disappoint, and within about a week I was uncomfortably aware of just how crooked my hand-planted rows were. On came the weeds. I don’t hate weeds because I like to hoe, but the number and length of corn rows amounted to much more hoeing than I could face. I rooted around in the shed – nope, no tractor-mounted cultivator to be found, but I had a plan.

While in college, I had the privilege of carrying out some research on native prairie grasses in Nobel Laureate George Beadle’s cornfield. There I learned, among so many things, the value of a wheel hoe. During a brief Google search, I was pleased to find a beautifully crafted, old-style wheel hoe built in Georgia. My Hoss Tools wheel hoe arrived before the weeds took over, and by mid-July, the corn was approaching 12-feet tall. Stay tuned …

For more on the Hoss Tools wheel hoe, check out my blog post about the Hoss Tools wheal hoe.

Whether you’re planting your fall spinach crop or processing your first butcher hog, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at, just let me know (

See you in November.

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.