Tortilla Blues

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Some tortilla chips have reason to be blue.

Under the regulatory system that determines which crops qualify for inclusion in Department of Agriculture support programs, blue corn is an orphan. According to the department rulebook, it isn't even considered corn because it's not yellow or white, the only versions of the food that are eligible for federal agricultural loans and crop payments.

This means that farmers who grow blue corn, which is made into the blue-corn tortilla chips that many of us love to dip into a nice salsa, aren't growing "real" corn, so they don't qualify for loan or other support programs, according to the government.

But as Congress considers a new farm bill, blue-corn growers are lobbying the lawmakers to make their niche crop a part of the official programs and the government assistance that entails.

Though the industry is tiny, it sells at a premium price, about $8 a bushel, more than double the going rate for white or yellow corn. Most official corn goes to feed cattle or, more recently, to produce ethanol, a non-petroleum vehicle fuel.

"This is one of the original corns," Caren Wilcox, executive director of the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., said of the blue variety. "They need to change the definition."

Dave Shipman, deputy administrator for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration at the USDA, said blue corn doesn't qualify as a member of the corn family because it is a specialty product that usually doesn't get sold in the open market and doesn't warrant inspection standards.

The definition of corn was set in the 1916 U.S. Grain Standards Act, under which three classes are recognized: yellow, white and a mix of the two. Not a word about blue corn, even though it was grown successfully by Southwestern American Indians such as the Hopi.

Sweet corn, commonly known as corn on the cob, is considered a vegetable and falls under a different regulatory regime.

"Real" corn has long been a big player whenever Congress debates a new farm bill. It is one of the most widely grown crops in the United States. Last year, 10.5 billion bushels were produced on 78 million acres. There are 300,000 corn farmers, dwarfing the 400 or so planting blue corn on about 20,000 acres.

That much of the blue-corn crop is organic doesn't help its regulatory standing. The National Organic Program office at the USDA is tiny and focused on certification of the $14.6 billion organic market, not on corn-naming issues.

For the first time in history, however, organic farming interests lobbied on a farm bill. Industry representatives appeared April 18 before a new subcommittee created by the Democratic majority on the House Agriculture Committee, the subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture.


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