New World, Old Ways

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Organic Seed Alliance turns to classical plant breeding to build a better sweet corn

 

STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBURY
PHOTOS BY NOLAN CALISCH

corn harvestFew foods so perfectly encapsulate the flavor of summer like sweet corn. Whether shaved off the cob into succotash, roasted over hot coals for elotes, or simply shucked, boiled, and twirled atop a sacrificial butter cube anointed with a little salt, when you eat corn, you’re participating in a New World tradition that’s many millennia old.

Central American farmers first domesticated corn about 10,000 years ago. Growers started noticing that some corn plants produced bigger ears, more kernels, or better flavor than others. Perhaps some were more resistant to drought, while others grew more ears per stalk.

Those ancient farmers may not have known anything about modern genetics or evolutionary theory, but they knew that by saving seed from only those superior plants, they could develop a population of corn that was healthier, more productive, easier to cultivate, and tastier to eat.

They were onto something. Today, of course, we still love to eat sweet corn, but for growers in northern climates like Washington, many varieties demand more heat and a longer growing season than our maritime climate can provide. Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), a nonprofit based in Port Townsend, Washington, is out to change all that by carrying on that generations-old project using exactly the same classical plant breeding techniques as those ancient agriculturalists working in 8000 B.C.

Well, almost exactly the same.

 

It All Starts with Seed

OSA was founded in 2003 with the mission to advance the ethical development and stewardship of seed. In addition to advocating at the legislative level on seed-related issues and educating farmers on how to grow seed, OSA also conducts plant breeding projects designed to develop high-quality seed for organic growers.

Why do organic growers need special seed? Because the conditions on organic farms are a lot different than on conventional ones. On organic farms, plants might experience increased pressure from weeds and pests, and fertility conditions are often lower than on high-input conventional farms reliant on heavy synthetic fertilizer use.

Disease pressures are different, too; some diseases that can be easily treated in conventional systems are a big problem on organic farms, which have more restrictions on the type and amount of chemicals they can apply. For all these reasons, organic farmers grow better crops when they have access to affordable seed that’s been bred from the beginning to perform well on farms like theirs.

Of course, climate also plays a major role in a farmer’s success growing different types of vegetables — especially corn. Most corn varieties need warm soil, at least 55°F, to reliably germinate. Farmers in areas with colder spring soil — like the Northwest, the upper Midwest, and New England — often grapple with poor or inconsistent germination in early spring when they plant seed directly into the ground.

As an additional complication, the sweeter a corn variety is (and sweetness is what consumers want), the warmer the soil needs to be for the kernels to germinate. That’s because the more sugar that’s contained in a kernel, the less starch there is, and starch is the fuel that propels the plant out of the ground in the spring.

For those reasons, northern growers have a limited selection of sweet corn varieties they can choose from, and virtually all of the options that are available are hybrids. That means farmers have to buy new seed every year, because if you save seed from a hybrid plant, the odds are good that it won’t look, or taste, anything like its parent.

Open-pollinated seeds on the other hand, “breed true,” which means that saved seed will grow plants that closely resemble its parent. That makes it possible for farmers to save their own seed. It also enables them to do their own on-farm breeding projects to develop a population that thrives in their own unique microclimate and responds well to the quirks of their own agricultural systems.

 

The Quest for Cold-Weather Corn

corn harvest 2In 2008, OSA partnered with a farmer in Minnesota named Martin Diffley and a team at the University of Wisconsin led by Professor Bill Tracy to develop a new open-pollinated sweet corn for northern growers that would germinate well in cold soils and produce ears that taste great.

Bill has bred sweet corn for decades, and his program at the university is home to some of the highest quality sweet corn breeding stock in the world. That partnership gave OSA access to some of that top-tier sweet corn–breeding material, which the team used to begin developing new populations.

After several years of making crosses and selecting the best families from those crosses, they developed a variety they were ready to release. ‘Who Gets Kissed? is a sugary enhancer corn with great flavor, disease resistance, stalk strength, and reliable germination in cold soils. It performed exceptionally well in the upper Midwest, but it still needed slightly more heat than Western Washington growers — especially those on the chilly Olympic Peninsula — could reliably expect each year.

So Bill and OSA kept going — this time, with additional support from the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative and the Port Townsend Food Co-op.

“The Port Townsend Food Co-op knew about the project,” says Laurie McKenzie, OSA’s research and education specialist, Northwest region, “and told us they wanted to see enough sweet corn production from local growers that they could sell it at the co-op. They said, ‘We want our local growers to have access to seed that works in our climate, with good flavor, that they can also save.’ So we started working, again with Bill’s team, to develop new crosses, this time concentrating on breeding for Olympic Peninsula growers.”

To help, OSA enlisted several farmer partners around the Olympic Peninsula, including Nash’s Organic Produce in Sequim, Washington State University’s Twin Vista Ranch in Nordland, and Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Chimacum, to help grow and evaluate the new crosses.

Breeding corn is a little more complicated than breeding many other crops. Each kernel on an ear of corn is individually pollinated, so one ear could contain the genetic material of hundreds of different parents. By the time a breeder decides they like a certain plant’s flavor or stalk height or ear shape, its genetic material has already been mingled and merged with the genetic material of potentially dozens of other plants, and finding out which kernel was pollinated by which parent is virtually impossible. If they’re not careful, breeders could unintentionally preserve the genetic material of inferior plants in their breeding population.

To compensate for that, the team holds back a portion of seed from each ear they plant. After selecting the plants they like best from each trial, they go back to the original seed and use only the parents of those plants that displayed desirable traits. Then, they send that seed to a winter nursery in South America, where it can be grown and cross-pollinated by hand during North America’s winter. In the spring, the seed is sent back to OSA, neatly bundled into “families” to be planted, grown, and evaluated stateside.

The Olympic Sweet Corn Project has now been underway for about three years, and the results are outstanding. “We’re a little farther along than I would have expected in year three,” says Laurie, “but we started with such good material. I’m very impressed with the quality. And with the winter nursery, we’re able to accomplish two years of work in one year.”

It can be challenging to determine when a breeding project is “done,” because plant populations are constantly changing, and there’s always variation, even among the most stable breeding populations. OSA anticipates that the final result will be commercially available to home gardeners and farmers sometime in the near future, although they’re not sure exactly when.

But they are sure about one thing: This will be an open-pollinated crop, and farmers will be allowed — and, in fact, encouraged — to continue the breeding on their own by saving seeds from the plants that perform especially well in the unique conditions of their own farms.

“Our approach is to select for traits that deliver resiliency and market qualities, but not necessarily uniformity in less important traits,” says Micaela Colley, OSA program director. “That enables farmers and gardeners to steward varieties rather than just saving seed, to continually select from diverse genetics to improve their crops and adapt them to new climates.”

 

A Return to Regional Biodiversity

In the days before centralized, commercial seed breeding, regional biodiversity was once just the way things were. By necessity, all farmers were also breeders, and each bioregion had its own seed, maintained by local growers, to suit their specific needs. Do you live in a hollow with a particularly cool micro-climate? You can breed for that. Do your long winters mean you need crops with excellent keeping qualities? That can be bred for, too.

The advent of industrial agriculture dramatically reduced that diversity by centralizing breeding to just a handful of sites around the country, and most farmers lost the skills they needed to select and save their own seed. But thanks to organizations like OSA, regional breeding is coming back.

The Olympic Sweet Corn Project is one example of a contemporary approach that relies on the same classical techniques used for millennia, supported by a modern understanding of genetics, increased coordination across state and national lines, and a collaborative approach that links farmers, scientists, and produce buyers to create something that benefits everybody — including the growers and eaters of tomorrow.

 

Who Gets Kissed? can be purchased now from High Mowing Organic Seeds (highmowingseeds.com). Watch for future Olympic Sweet Corn releases from Organic Seed Alliance in the next few years.

Margarett Waterbury is a food and drink writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the managing editor of Edible Portland.

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