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Made of Corn But Not Quite Edible

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George M. Rommel, an early twentieth century animal husbandman and farm expert, was not one to shy away from novel solutions to agricultural challenges in America. In 1905, he championed the import from Bermuda of a breed of “woolless” sheep to address America’s “alarming appetite for lamb” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/5/1905). And he was always on the lookout for potential new uses for leftovers from agricultural enterprises. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that his book on agricultural refuse industries, Farm Products in Industry, was printed on paper made from cornstalks and bound with boards made from cottonseed hulls.

Published by the Rae D. Henkle Company in 1928, Farm Products in Industry was the result of Rommel’s extensive survey of possible ways to conserve agricultural resources as well as provide relief for farmers. The volume itself, made of corn and cottonseed refuse, is a monument to the possibilities of using agricultural waste in bookmaking. Cornstalks were just piling up and in need of a makeover, apparently. Just in Iowa and Illinois, Rommel estimated, the “unused parts of the corn plant... amount to 8,000,000 bone-dry tons” annually. I examined the copy of Rommel's book held by the Rare Book Division, and its pages are clean, sound, and in perfect condition, 84 years later.

From my admittedly inexpert reading of some scientific papermaking reports, it seems that many challenges (of chemistry, of fibers, of equipment, and more) stood in the way of creating a large-scale cornstalk paper industry in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the topic is of perennial interest. A corn-based toilet tissue won the 2009 Indiana Student Corn Innovation Contest just three years ago. And in the Philippines, plans were announced just a few months ago to build a papermaking plant that will make use of the surrounding cornstalk-filled countryside.

Farm Products in Industry might not quite be an edible book, but I still think it’s worth considering during this month when we celebrate such things.

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