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Sweet corn has had a year.

When a 7-year-old boy this summer exclaimed he couldn't "imagine a more beautiful thing" than the corn-cob-on-a-stick in his hand, he simultaneously broke the Internet and reminded everyone to get a little more scrumptious maize in their lives.

Minnesota is one of the nation's top producers of sweet corn. But the state's vast cornfields give a somewhat misleading impression about how much of the "big lump with knobs" — as the child described it in a viral video — is being grown for humans.

Reader Ken Collier asked Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project, about the purpose for all this corn. He has wondered while driving around the state what becomes of all the corn he sees growing in roadside fields.

"How much of that is destined to be eaten?" Collier asked. "And how much goes to industrial purposes, either ethanol or some other chemical?"

Minnesota farms produced 1.4 billion bushels of corn in 2021, which is the equivalent of roughly 78 billion pounds of the stuff. Only three states grew more corn: Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But this bounty generally isn't what Americans want at their picnic.

Humans eat sweet corn. And only a sliver of Minnesota's harvest lands for sale on the back of a Ford Econoline or buttered at a summer barbecue. Specifically, just over 1% of the 8 million acres harvested for field corn in 2021 is dedicated to the cash crop's sweeter cousin.

A lion's share of what's grown in the state — roughly two-thirds of those 8 million acres — is for grain that is either devoured by livestock or transported to ethanol facilities.

Diverse destinations

Thirty-eight percent of Minnesota's corn harvest in 2021 went to meal for cattle, dairy cows, turkey and pigs, according to data published by the USDA. Corn meal fills livestock up with protein (though too much, as researchers have pointed out, might make cattle sick). Ultimately, those animals are slaughtered for meat that ends up on dinner plates.

Even the scientists developing corn varieties have those hungry cattle and pigs in mind.

"Those hybrids are specially designed to have improved digestibility for the livestock," Jeffrey Coulter, an agronomist with University of Minnesota Extension.

The next highest off-ramp for corn is ethanol. According to industry numbers, about 29% of Minnesota's harvest — just shy of every third row of corn — was used in 2021 to make ethanol, which is further mixed with petroleum to make a fuel blend that powers vehicles.

As a percentage, this pales to neighbors South Dakota and Iowa, where over 50% of their respective bushels go to ethanol.

Next, a sizable chunk of the state's corn is exported. Over 16% of the Minnesota's corn bounty is put on rail or freighted by barge out of a Mississippi River port (low water levels notwithstanding). That amounts to roughly $1.1 billion worth of corn, says the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Some more corn — roughly 450,000 acres — goes into silage, when the whole plant is chopped up, stalk and all, for livestock food.

Finally, small percentages of the nation's corn ends up processed into a variety of products, from high fructose corn syrup to cornstarch and industrial alcohols, according to the national corn lobby.

A sweet corn powerhouse

The individual farmer may not know exactly where their own corn lands, as they sell their grain to an elevator — who, in turn, sells it elsewhere.

"I usually just take our corn to the local elevator," said Bryan Biegler, a farmer from Murray County and past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. He noted higher prices may exist at ethanol plants farther down the road, but it pencils out to stay local. "It doesn't pay for the trucking to get there."

Still, some farmers are growing the corn we eat. Those roadside stands and boxes of corn in the grocery store are not a mirage. Across the North Star State, farmers harvested more than 93,000 acres of sweet corn in 2021.

In fact, Minnesota's sweet corn haul was the second-largest in the nation and represented a quarter of the country's overall production, according to the USDA.

As of Monday, Minnesota farmers have harvested 92% of the year's corn for grain (sweet corn harvest arrives earlier in the year). And while much of the state is in the throes of drought again this year, corn farmers have largely reported good yields.

That means there'll be plenty of field corn for those grain bins and elevators and barges. And ample sweet corn for the kids.

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