Comic: Adapting Corn for Tortillas—and New Markets—in the Pacific Northwest

Published by
Nhatt Nichols

If you’ve ever eaten a fresh tortilla in the Pacific Northwest, the corn was probably shipped in from Mexico. That’s because corn is a crop that typically requires longer days than you’ll find in that region for much of the year.

But that may soon change. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) research farm in Chimacum, Washington, on the northeast edge of the Olympic Peninsula, is working with farmers to breed, test, and ultimately adapt corn varieties to this unique location. It’s part of a larger effort to create viable pathways for farmers and chefs to collaborate, and it’s also a key strategy in OSA’s larger work to make growers more resilient in the face of the climate crisis.

A few years back, Micaela Colley, OSA’s program director, heard from several farmers in the region who identified tortilla corn as something they were interested in trialing.

“It’s a value-added and culturally significant food crop that’s not perishable, so it would be helpful for regional food security,” she said. “But corn is not a traditional food crop of the native peoples of this region, so we don’t have that history of traditional corn adaptation to the northwest.”

OSA worked to find a few farmers interested in growing masa corn. It then trialed more than 20 varieties of corn in 2021 and found a partner in Chef Lisette Garay and her wife Cassandra, the owners of La Cocina in nearby Port Townsend.

Garay, who watched her grandmother cook tamales in Watsonville, California as a child, and whose restaurant work included stints in Michelin-starred kitchens, has a deep respect and understanding of the whole growing process. She saw in OSA’s work a way to give people a taste of what she had eaten growing up.

In her first illustrated article for Civil Eats, artist Nhatt Nichols explores how OSA is working to bring new, culturally significant crops to the Pacific Northwest, and how they partner with farmers and chefs, and others to build a viable, sustainable food system.

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Nhatt Nichols

Nhatt Nichols is a multidisciplinary artist and writer raised on top of a mountain in the Okanogan, Washington State. A graduate of The Royal Drawing School in London, she uses drawing, poetry, and comics to break down political and environmental issues, finding new ways to meet people where they are, and ask them to reach deeper into their ability to care and take action.

Published by
Nhatt Nichols

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