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Venture putting ancient corn on modern menus

Rochester Business Journal
October 5, 2012


For generations, Iroquois white corn has been a staple of the traditional diet and an important ceremonial food for Native Americans in this region. Now a program organized by the non-profit Friends of Ganondagan Inc. intends to promote the healthy food and introduce it to new audiences.
The organization is sponsoring a program that would vastly increase production of the corn, making it an ordinary part of the diet for all Americans instead of a food eaten mostly by the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois.
The idea of the Iroquois White Corn Project is to create a much wider market for the strain of corn, which has lower sugar content than traditional sweet corn and is gluten-free. These qualities make the corn a healthier alternative for people with diabetes or gluten allergies, says Peter Jemison, site manager at Ganondagan State Historic Site and head of the Iroquois White Corn Project.
"Iroquois white corn is a slow food, so when you eat it your body digests it slowly," Jemison says. "It's not like sweet corn that's very sugary. This is low in sugar content but high in the building blocks of cells, including niacin, so it's a good, healthy food that can be used in tortillas, cooking or soups."
Iroquois white corn has a rich history with the Haudenosaunee people. It grew in abundance during the 17th century, helping to sustain 4,500 people living in Ganondagan until 1687, when French forces descended on the town during a trade dispute and burned 300,000 bushels of corn stored there.
In August, the Iroquois White Corn Project received an $85,000 grant from the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation, money that will help the project grow in the next year, Jemison says.
The project also is supported by Rochester Institute of Technology. Last year professor Roger Dube, also a board member of the Friends of Ganondagan, was talking with Ganondagan officials about a way to deepen the relationship between the university and the non-profit. Jemison suggested becoming involved in the Iroquois White Corn Project.
"It had several different components that looked good," Dube says. "First, it allows us to reintroduce a heritage food back to the community, one we've been using for many centuries. Second, it's a very healthy, low-glycemic-index food, so it can prevent diseases like diabetes where sweet corn encourages it."
That is especially beneficial because of the high incidence of diabetes in the Native American community, Dube notes.
Currently as little as 75 acres of land worldwide is dedicated to growing Iroquois white corn, Dube says, while more than 1 million acres is used to grow sweet corn.
Dube petitioned RIT president William Destler for funding to help the Iroquois White Corn Project. Though RIT is not normally into grant making of that type, Destler was able to find a small amount of money to help the project.
The project has other local help. Wegmans Food Markets Inc. has expressed interest in stocking the products in its stores, and Jemison says the company liked the economic benefit of supporting local growers.
A few different corn products would be developed, Jemison says. Ganondagan would make a roasted corn flour, an unroasted corn flour and unground hominy.
The Iroquois White Corn Project initially was envisioned by John Mohawk, Jemison's late cousin. Mohawk, a histoup with the idea of taking the heirloom white corn and making a few different products with it.
Mohawk's work helped create the market for the product that the project now hopes to fill, Jemison says. For years he ran Pinewoods Community Farming in a small cabin that belonged to his family on the Seneca Nation's Cattaraugus Reservation. Between 1997 and 2006, corn grown in a nearby field was processed in a small kitchen and served at Pinewoods Cafe.
Mohawk also worked with a number of chefs to stimulate demand for the white corn and increase the number of ways it could be used in cooking. But after his death, the project fell dormant until Jemison decided to move it to Ganondagan.
There is a local economic benefit to the project as it moves to Ganondagan, Jemison says. The Iroquois White Corn Project also aims to create a reliable market for farmers who could grow larger quantities of white corn. Farmers, especially Native Americans, will be able to grow the corn and sell it directly to Ganondagan.
The Iroquois White Corn Project has been able to purchase equipment for processing the corn and has already begun selling some of the products at festivals.
"It's extremely popular there," Dube says. "We're also selling it online and just about to begin an active marketing campaign to get it into high-end restaurants around the country, using the chefs that John Mohawk contacted."
The non-profit and the state historic site have a close relationship. Ganondagan is managed by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the workers there are state employees. It encompasses 600 acres in Victor, land that includes hiking trails, a visitors center and an authentic Seneca bark longhouse.
The Friends of Ganondagan is a non-profit group that works on programming for the park. The site is host to an annual Native American music and dance festival, which is organized by the Friends of Ganondagan.
"They do everything to run the festival, like tent rental, organizing the performers who come here, collecting the gate receipts so they can cover the expenses," Jemison says.
The organization also sponsors smaller events throughout the year, he says, including a lecture series in collaboration with Nazareth College of Rochester.
Income from the Iroquois White Corn Project will go to the Friends of Ganondagan and benefit its programming. The non-profit organization reported total revenue of $238,699 in the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2011.
Jemison says he hopes the project is fully operational by next year so that a larger crop of Iroquois white corn can be planted in spring and harvested in the fall. The corn needs a longer season and is dried on the plant, he notes.
But Jemison says the project does not want to grow too large or too quickly, at least at first.
"We're at the beginning of really getting our product, but we're entering the marketplace slowly so we don't create a demand we can't fulfill," Jemison says. "We've been approaching it in a way that we can build up gradually by going to events and selling the product directly to the customer, kind of going on word of mouth for now."

10/5/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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