NORRIDGEWOCK ― Looking around Albie Barden’s Norridgewock homestead, you begin to notice a theme. It’s depicted in paintings, placed on table tops, kept in jars and bags and drawers.
The items don’t give any indication into what Barden is probably most known for ― being one of the founders of the Common Ground Fair and helping to establish the Maine Grain Alliance’s Kneading Conference. The small hints also don’t give you any insight into Barden’s successful masonry stove and wood-fired oven business, Maine Wood Heat Co.
But all over his home there’s corn, varieties of flint corn native to Maine and the Northeast, specifically. The ears of dry corn strung across his kitchen and carefully labeled resealable bags filled with a myriad of kernels show a passion that has become the focus of Barden’s life.
For the past 25 years Barden has been holding the role of a corn keeper, growing heritage varieties of flint corn, saving the kernels and passing them onto others who will plant them and continue the cycle, in an act to preserve the region’s native crop from extinction.
This isn’t just a hobby for Barden; this is his life’s passion and more broadly a sacred way to reestablish our connection with the earth, something he feels our modern culture has lost touch with.
“See I think deep down in our souls, our culture is hungry, hungry, hungry, for reestablishing that sacred relationship, but we don’t know how,” Barden said. “But I think actually corn can be a vehicle to find that path back to that sacred place.”
Not your average ear of corn
Growing up in Old Town, Barden’s family had a large garden in which his father gave he and his siblings each a row of sweet corn to grow. As young children in the summer often do ― with time on their hands and the desire to make some cash ― the Barden siblings set up a roadside stand on Stillwater Avenue, selling sweet corn and painted rocks.
“That was one of our big money-making excursions,” Barden said with a grin. “We would grow sweet corn every summer and my mother was a stickler for the corn being very, very fresh and so we would pick enough ears for the first sitting of corn but if you wanted seconds you went out and picked more because she wanted it to be that fresh,” he said.
But flint corn is a different crop and experience entirely from the traditional summer sweet corn.
Known most commonly in the modern era as the colored stalks of dried corn that pop up around Thanksgiving, flint corn played a much more integral role centuries ago, serving as the the staple crop in Native American cultures across the Americas. Each region had its own varieties of flint corn that had adapted for growing in the area’s climate.
With a harder external shell on its kernels than sweet corn, flint corn is most commonly ground into cornmeal and serves as the basis for traditional foods such as corn tortillas, porridges and cornbread.
In Maine, and other colder Northeastern states, flint corn varieties that could mature in a shorter growing season were the strains that prevailed historically. However, as commercialization took hold on agriculture, the prevalence of flint corn diminished.
“Flint corn would have been a staple of, not just Maine Native American diets, but it would have been a staple of all farm diets in the 1800s,” Barden said. “The shift was made away from flint corn because you could get more production, more volume per acre, from different kinds of corn. It was a shift, I think, from everyone taking care of their own needs to it becoming more of an industrial commodity kind of thing.”
With Maine farmers opting to grow more commercially viable types of corn, Barden’s first interaction with flint corn is from his family’s Rhode Island roots. When relatives would come to Maine to visit his family when he was a child, they were instructed to bring with them a five pound bag of white flint corn cornmeal. From the cornmeal the family make jonnycakes, a traditional cornmeal pancake that stems from the Narragansett and Pequot tribes.
Though the family loved making jonnycakes, they would only do so when they were able to get the authentic cornmeal from their relatives. Flint corn at the time was not commercially available in Maine.
However, thanks to dedicated group of Native Americans and agriculture enthusiasts like Barden, a push to bring this native grain back to its rightful standing as an important regional crops is gaining traction in Maine.
An act of preservation
While Barden himself is not Native American, his path to becoming a corn keeper was heavily influenced by Native Americans he has met and their cultural beliefs of maintaining a sacred relationship with the earth.
Like any crop, there is a knack to growing flint corn, and when Barden’s first crop of a heirloom variety called Byron flint corn was eaten by his horses before he could harvest it, Barden became discouraged.
But several years later, as part of a plant spirit medicine class he was leading, flint corn was once again put in Barden’s path, and this time something magical happened.
While leading the class in how to “to journey with a drum, to journey with the spirit of a particular plant that was in bloom with that time,” Barden looked behind him and noticed that the man tending to the sacred fire had an ear of “magnificent” corn that Barden instantly knew was flint corn.
Upon asking the man what the corn variety was Barden learned it was called Abenaki rose and the man peeled off a row of the blushy red kernels for Barden to plant himself.
“From my twelve kernels, I got 24 ears of corn. Which was a huge increase. Corn is just magical in that way, it does so much more than almost any kind of grain. And so I started growing Abenaki rose,” he said. “Every year I would grow more, and every year I would give away hundreds of thousands of seeds.”
Since journeying into corn keeping Barden has planted and preserved about a dozen varieties of flint corn. He’s obtained the varieties he’s grown through what he called an “underground” network of likeminded individuals growing strains of flint corn to preserve them for future generations.
Of the flint corn varieties that Barden has grown, he has been able to identify four as native to Maine, including the Byron, Knowlton, Hubbard and Fort Kent flint corns. Named after the places they grew or the people who grew them, each strain of flint corn is unique in their own right. Some ears are short, others long. Some are a multitude of colored kernels, and some ― like the Gigi Hill variety that Barden planted last season ― a uniform deep blue.
After admiring the character that this native crop has, it’s not hard to see why Barden has invested so much of his life to helping save it.
“I’m doing an active preservation activity, so I’m trying to locate and preserve these varieties of heirloom corn from Maine, New England, and New York. Which have mostly nearly disappeared, not because they aren’t tasty, not because they don’t make sense, but because history kind of let them go by,” Barden said.
A husky future for flint corn
Native varieties of flint corn have been preserved only on a small scale, being grown in gardens or in smaller fields, but Barden feels like that’s about to change. In Maine especially, Barden said there is a growing effort to begin growing flint corn in larger volume.
“This is happening. It’s growing, both personally and commercially.” Barden said. “Within the Maine Grain Alliance community there’s a growing number people that are kind of psyched up about it.”
At Songbird Farm in Unity, a flint corn native to Vermont is being grown for commercial purposes. In Portland at Tortilleria Penchanga, Barden says there is an interest to source all of the flint corn they use to make tortillas from Maine.
“What I would like to see would be to see flint corn become a staple part of the Maine diet,” Barden said. “Certainly a healthy diet, but certainly a part the sustainable grain growing that it wouldn’t be some exotic thing you’d have once or twice a year. It would be everyone just going to their shelf knowing they could get flint corn.”
For this growth to happen, it will take the dogged and selfless work of corn keepers like Barden finding and growing out varieties to determine which strains of native flint corn are the most viable for commercial production in Maine. In a season or two, Barden is hopeful that there will be a large enough volume of Byron flint corn seeds for it to be grown at a larger scale.
But even if flint corn doesn’t make it to the plates of all Mainers, Barden will still be growing out the native varieties, because for him there’s a much more spiritual push for him to continue as a corn keeper. It’s a push guided by his desire to keep the crop alive for the Native American cultures that it once thrived under. It’s a push guided by his desire to make us a culture that is in a right relationship with the land.
“This is not a commercial venture on my part. It’s a restoration of a staple food to this region that was just an amazing, amazing food,” Barden said. “I you don’t hold a vision of something that is sustainable then I don’t know what you do with yourself […] So that’s kind of been a guiding principle of my adult life, is how do we care for the next generations and we do the right thing.”