Monday, February 21, 2011

AgBC's: G is for Grains

Last week we talked about the important role farmers play in our lives each and every day. And though you may imagine a picturesque little farm with a few animals here and there, a vegetable garden and a few acres of crops, that's not the reality of today's agriculture. Today's farmers, whether large or small in scale, tend to specialize their production operation.

Many of today's farmers specialize in crop and grain production. In fact, over 41 percent of Ohio's farmland is used for crop production. The most popular grain crops grown in Ohio include corn, oats, soybeans and winter wheat. And despite its relatively small size in area, Ohio ranks 8th in corn production, 9th in oar production, 6th in soybean production, and 7th in winter wheat production. That's pretty impressive!

Let's take a closer look at corn, the most popular grain crop grown in Ohio.

Did you know that the corn plant is native to North and South America? Native Americans grew many varieties of corn, including sweet corn, popcorn and corn for grining into meal thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived in the Americans. It wasn't until the 17th century that corn was introduced to European farmers.

Did you know that the grain crop farmers grow is different from the sweet corn you may grow in your garden or buy at the grocery store?

 Yep! The field corn most farmers grow is not the same kind you eat fresh off the's harder and used primarily for animal well as for the production of biofuels like ethanol and processed into other products...even plastic!

Here's how you can do a simple experiment in your own classroom...or even your home...making ethanol from simple household items:

Supplies needed:
  • empty 2-liter bottle
  • balloon
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 package of yeast
  • funnel
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  1. Pour 2 cups of water and one package of yeast into an empty 2-liter bottle. Swish the bottle to mix the ingredients. Observe and record your observations.
  2. Put funnel into the mouth of the bottle. Add 1/4 cup corn syrup & mix again. Stretch deflated balloon over top of the bottle and set bottle to the side.
  3. Label the time and date on your bottle. Observe over the next 2-3 days.
 During ethanol production, the feedstock (in this case corn) is ground so it can be processed more quickly. Then, the starch (or cellulose) is converted to sugar. In our experiment, that process was already done when the corn was converted to sugary corn syrup.

Then, the sugar is fed to microbes that use it for food, producing ethanol and carbon dioxide. In our experiment, the sugar is fed to the yeast microbes. Over 24-26 hours, the production of ethanol...and the carbon dioxide...will inflate the balloon over the top of the bottle.

The ethanol is then purified to the desired concentration. In our experiment, it will yield a very low concentration that can safely be poured down your sink once the experiment is complete.

For more information about Ohio's corn production, visit the Ohio Corn Marketing Program.

This series is inspired by the book The ABC's of Fruits and Vegetables and Beyond.

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