Corn Belt 2.0: Syncing the Starchscape

[Mountain of Corn.]

Editors Note: File under Feedback: Architecture’s New Territories, an InfraNet Lab seminar at Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design / University of Toronto. Guest post and images are by Matthew Spremulli. Matthew will be continuing this work in his MArch thesis, which will be blogged at the ever-expanding reField. -----------

Corn has unquestionably become the dominant crop farmed in the United States, which on average as a country produces in excess of 12.1 billion bushels/year. However, the story behind corn’s abundance at the large scale is actually a story of abundance on the extra small scale of the kernel itself, and that of a very specific corn-kernel type: Yellow Dent. Yellow Dent represents 99% of all Corn grown in the USA, grown principally for its amazing ability to yield a high amount of starch, yet none of which is able to be eaten directly off the cob by neither man nor animal! Thus, all of this “potentially” abundant food enters a long and varied chain of transportation and processing, to turn the inedible grain into something useful. Another way of looking at the story of corn is recognizing the vast amount of separate processing infrastructures.

[The Corn Belt accounts for more than half of the corn grown in the US.]

Most of this corn (approx 50%) is being grown in a very specific area in the US, called the Corn Belt (Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana), thanks to the very specific climate and soil types that exist there the Yellow Dent crop (originally from Southern Mexico) flourishes. The Corn Belt is also where most of the processing occurs. US Corn has five major consumption uses: 1. Feed for livestock 2. Ethanol production 3. Exports 4. Food additives 5. Food products.

[Corn Input-Output.]

[Corn processing plant. From the Iowa-based Pine Lake Corn Processors LLC.]

However, one of the more interesting threads through this story of abundant starch is that of the energy inputs/outputs in the transformation processes and how that can be traced. The production of corn both exhausts a large amount of energy and imported material and leaves behind a massive amount of wastes and by-products. One of the first things to consider in re-wiring the system would be to tie together the outputs from one process and potentially use them for an input of another. After examining the energy input/output process of making ethanol (as found in PDF The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol), which represents one of the most energy intensive processes and also the most amount of useful by-products, there was potential to tie together points in the system and create closed-loop circuits. Another point to consider is how consumers never really get to experience any of these transformative corn-processes before it becomes an array of products on their store shelves.

[Existing corn embodied energy: production, processing + inputs/outputs.]

Thus, a proposed intervention is to exploit the existing main mode of transportation for corn, the train, and turn it into a system of a traveling processing plant, corn product store, waste recycler, and industrial museum. The train breathes in the outputs from corn sub-systems, such as the waste run-off from cattle farming and then turn it into a fermented fertilizer by the time it reaches the corn crops of the Corn Belt. The train mechanics would need to be redesigned in order to double as the large mechanical processing gears and drums found in the Dry and Wet Milling processing plants. The train would travel along a dedicated loop that would sync the cities that create the food demand and the landscapes capable of producing the abundance. City folk would have the chance to see the processing of the corn as it passes through its line, and each train car would be designed to both perform its part of the processing while becoming an interface for the consumers and users.

[Rail network synchronized to corn belt prodcution.]

[Proposed re-wiring of corn embodied energy: production, processing + inputs/outputs.]

Also from the Feedback seminar:

Re-Link: The Physical Network of Data, Ali Fard

Border Economies: the Maquiladora Export Landscape, Juan Robles

Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, Fei-Ling Tseng

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