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Ask a Farmer: What is the difference between sweet corn and field corn?

Sweet corn. It's almost as American as apple pie.

If you're barbecuing with friends and family on a sunny weekend evening in Minnesota, there's a good chance that corn on the cob is part of the menu. Or maybe you're celebrating Thanksgiving with a plump turkey and all the fixings — mashed potatoes, dressing, cranberries, and a nice big serving bowl filled with sweet corn.

When most people think of corn, it's sweet corn that comes to mind. But the fact is, out of the 97.2 million acres of corn planted in the United States last year, sweet corn made up less than one percent of the total crop. The rest was field corn.

When driving through rural Minnesota or any other Corn Belt state, it's usually field corn you see out your window. Although field corn kernels start out soft like sweet corn, it's not harvested until the kernels are dry. Field corn is used to feed livestock and make the renewable fuel ethanol, and thousands of other bio-based products like carpet, make-up, and aspirin.

Sweet corn is harvested when the kernels are soft and sweet, making it ideal for eating. If you grab an ear of field corn and try to take a bite, you'll probably break your teeth. It's hard and dry (and only tastes good to cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and some wild animals).

U.S. corn farmers harvested 10.8 billion bushels of field corn last year. Minnesota corn farmers harvested a record 1.37 billion bushels. In contrast, 158.7 million bushels of sweet corn was harvested throughout the entire United States.

While sweet corn satisfies our taste buds, field corn improves our lives in many other ways.

One bushel of field corn weighs 56 pounds, and if it isn't used directly for livestock feed, it is likely to be exported or made into ethanol that is used to fuel your car. Each bushel produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 18 pounds of dried distillers grains (a high-protein livestock feed), 14 pounds of corn gluten pellets, 1.8 pounds of corn oil, and 17 pounds of carbon dioxide (used in dry ice, the beverage industry, water treatment facilities, and other applications).

The remaining field corn crop is used to make other food products, manufactured goods, exported to other countries, and put into storage.

Sweet corn holds a place in American dining lore. Field corn nourishes livestock, powers our cars, cleans our air, creates jobs, and builds strong local economies.

So, even though you can't slather a cob of field corn in butter and eat it, it still touches our lives in many ways.

Noah Hultgren is on the Minnesota Corn Growers Association board and is a field corn, sweet corn, soybean, and sugar beat farmer in Raymond, Minn., in Kandiyohi County.