Bloody Butcher: Virginia's Heirloom Red Corn
Gardeners and small farmers are leading the heirloom seed movement, bringing back nearly forgotten strains of garden vegetables. Jake Garland lives in rural Nelson County, Virginia. Garland began farming in his spare time. He started small, growing corn for his family and neighbors. Now that he’s recently retired, Garland is expanding, dedicated entirely to bringing back Virginia’s Bloody Butcher heirloom corn. We talked to him about his experience growing Bloody Butcher.
What do you grow? Tell us about your farm.
I’ve been on this farm 25 years, it was my mother’s home place. Corn is the only thing I do, and Bloody Butcher specifically.
What I’ve grown in the past was only Silver Queen, but I didn’t grow any the past two years. I just decided I was going to go for it with the Bloody Butcher. With the Silver Queen, I never tried to sell it commercially. Mostly I supplied the community by giving corn to my neighbors. But with the Bloody Butcher I’ve made a little money on it.
How did you discover heirloom corn?
There was a family in my community, Raymond Thomas was the patriarch. He had what they called Thomas Family Corn. It had a big long red ear. This corn was a family heirloom and they had been saving the seeds and handing them down through generations.
After investigating it I got interested. Turns out it was actually Bloody Butcher, an heirloom corn from Virginia. I found some at SeedSavers.com, out in Iowa. At first I bought four pounds of seed corn, it was $19/lb.
My first year was three years ago, and I got a 300-pound yield out of that four pounds. That's a good yield, right where it’s supposed to be. Bloody Butcher is an open pollinated corn, since it's an heirloom, so you can save the seed. I did that and then I planted five acres. From that five acres I got 5000 pounds of seed. I partnered with historical local mill Woodson’s Mill. He ground it into red cornmeal and red grits to sell. We’ve done a bang up job with it.
Why do you like Bloody Butcher in particular?
It is fantastic to get into that community of heirloom folks. I’m 63, I’m getting more nostalgic as I get older. My heritage is gaining importance to me every day. And this corn has a story.
Bloody Butcher corn came out of Virginia in the mid 1840s, it’s a Virginia heirloom corn. It’s how people survived through winter. Then it disappeared. The Thomases were the last family I knew who grew it in Nelson county.
It had all the buzzwords. I didn’t use fertilizer because I wanted to see how it would do if it grew like it did 100 years ago. No herbicides, no pesticides. I pick it by hand, and shell it on a 1930s Blackhawk sheller. In total, I only touch the corn three times.
What’s different about an heirloom corn compared to conventional?
Bloody Butcher corn seems to do well in Virginia. It’s hardy, it tolerates drought. I spread mine out between high ground and fertile bottom area, and it does well both places. The stalk is 9-12 feet tall. Some almost 15 feet tall. Traditionally it grows up to two ears on a stalk. A lot of mine had one, but it’s a 10-13-inch-long ear, full of beautiful deep red kernels. I save it on the cob because I read it’s a higher germination rate if you save it on the cob.
It must be true because every seed I put the ground came up. With heirloom products, when you don’t fertilize and herbicide, the yield per acre is half that of commercial corn. Commercial growers would laugh at our yield, but that’s with no herbicide and pesticide. Low yield is why heirloom varieties cost so much.
Harvesting I do by hand so that’s more work for me. A commercial combine picks, shucks, shells and cleans the seed all with one machine, but those are $350,000. For me this is sort of my retirement golf game. It’s fun for me.
Why is Bloody Butcher corn trending?
People have especially been interested in these red grits. You can also get the cornmeal. We like the grits because they look so cool on the plate under something. This isn’t to replace instant grits from the café in the morning. This is for high-end chefs who want a base under a cool entrée. A cool-looking shrimp and grits.
My first year was a test, I just wanted to reproduce the old-fashioned farming days with tractors and a two-row corn planter. And it turned out great. I’m going to double my acreage next year. I’ll call you in November so you can come help me pick some.
For Bloody Butcher seeds, or other heirloom corn, visit the folks at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.