By Matt B. Walen
An education in food growing has blossomed into a hobby for one north Havre producer.
Dave Christensen has been growing painted mountain corn for the past 27 years in an attempt to create a gene pool to grow the hardiest Western corn that will survive the high-stress conditions of Montana.
I began teaching my children how to raise all of their own food for when they begin to raise their own families, he said.
The high elevation of Big Timber took its toll on several of the harvests in the first 10 years of planting, Christensen said. Through years of toil and nursing the crops along, he said he has grown a hearty crop of corn that is surviving the states harsher climate.
My crops have been pretty dependable the last 15 years, he said.
Christensen said he became dedicated to genetic corn production after returning from an international genetic conference in Oregon.
I was so impressed with the idea that the genetic varieties are disappearing, he said.
Christensen said he is also growing the corn crop for seed so future producers have somewhere to turn to as a source of genetic diversity when they need to adapt corn to harsher growing conditions.
Approximately 95 percent of genetic variety of corn in the world has been lost, discontinued and is gone from the face of the earth forever, Christensen said. Most of the commercial corn grown from coast to coast has 90 percent of the same genes.
Its great stuff, he said. Im not knocking it. But if there were to be something wrong with it in the future, if disease or pests mutate to attack it or if agriculture continues to be forced onto marginal land, the day may come when we need to start over from a different genetic foundation.
What is overlooked by the commercial corn growers is that most of the corn is grown near a good supply of water and in soils that are rich with organic matter and full of nitrogen, Christensen said. The opposite conditions of most of the West, he said.
The biological metabolism is very important to how a plant survives in a region and its controlled by thousands of genes, he said. This important factor has been overlooked. You cannot take a race native to another region, its soil, air and weather, and make it thrive in a foreign environment only by adding a few genes.
Christensen said he is growing his strain of paint mountain corn for future generations to use as a food source if necessary. Paint mountain corn is the fastest maturing strain being grown today, he said.
Painted mountain corn is grown by Kurds oppressed by Saddam Hussein in Northern Iraq, mountain farmers in the ex-Soviet Union, North Korea, China and Uruguay.
Other people in Havre are growing painted mountain corn, Christensen said. The seed is offered in seed racks in local stores, packaged by state and national garden seed companies, he said.
Christensen said his corn is very nutritious and can also be used for seed for the following years crop. The seed is sold to a seed catalogs, he said.
Christensen said he starts planting his corn crop near the end of April and usually starts harvesting the crop in August or September depending on the amount of precipitation during the growing months.
Besides corn crops in the Havre and Big Timber areas, Christensen said he has crops grown in the Flathead Valley and the Mission Mountains for seed.
Christensen recently harvested his painted mountain corn crop planted on a half-acre of farm ground 10 miles north of Havre on crop land provided by Alec and Karen McIntosh.
The north Havre plot is grown mostly genetic development, experimentation and seed stock for next year, Christensen said.
Perhaps a few cobs will make it around town for fall decorations, he said.