Organic Broadcaster

Illinois farmers, researchers, chefs join forces to build local specialty grains market

By Bill Davison

Ellen King, manager of Hewn Bakery in Evanston, Ill., plans to buy flour from organic farmer Harold Wilken. They’re pictured here on Wilken’s field of Warthog hard red winter wheat. Wilken, who is part of the Grand Prairie Grain Guild, grew variety trial plots for the University of Illinois in 2016.
Photo submitted

Farmers, plant breeders at University of Illinois, Extension educators, and a diverse coalition of nonprofit organizations, chefs, and bakers are collaborating to rebuild a viable regional food system for staple crops in Illinois. These groups started working together in 2015 as part of the Grand Prairie Grain Guild (GPGG) project. The grain guild was inspired by similar work that has been done in the northeast and is described in Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate and Amy Halloran’s book The New Breadbasket. GPGG’s goal is to connect everyone involved in local food systems to create the best crop varieties, business structures, and trusting relationships to help support thriving farms and rural communities.

The GPGG currently has 284 members from 9 states. It represents a valuable resource for learning more about innovative practices and synergistic effects that are helping to overcome longstanding barriers to developing local food systems. The group can be joined at

Participatory plant breeding for organic grains and beans is a key part of this project. The Participatory Plant Breeding Toolkit from the Organic Seed Alliance was used to help avoid common mistakes, create clear and realistic goals, and to inform the design of the trial. The goal is to breed resilient varieties that meet the needs of organic farmers, and help create diverse crop rotations and profitable farms.

New varieties bred specifically for organic conditions offer farmers a chance to add value to their crops, and in some cases, these varieties outperform commercial standards. An example of a successful participatory breeding project for small grains is Lexi II wheat. Steve Jones, the wheat breeder with The Bread Lab at Washington State University, created a diverse gene pool by crossing old and new wheat varieties and providing seed to farmers who performed in-field selection and rogueing over a period of three years. The improved variety was then entered into a trial with 59 other commercial varieties, and Lexi II had the highest yield in the trial.

Crops that are being trialed in the Grain Guild project include a diverse mix of small grains such as oats, barley, emmer, einkorn, spelt, landrace wheat, spring wheat, hard red winter wheat, soft red winter wheat, rye, and upland rice. Guild members are also trialing open-pollinated corn varieties that include Floriani, Henry Moore, Wapsie Valley, composite mixtures of northern eight-row flint corn, Italian flint corn, and flint corn from South America, as well as Rebellion Organic Ready dent corn from Dr. Frank Kutka, a corn breeder with the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society in North Dakota. Dry beans are also part of the trial and include varieties of bush bean, cowpea, soybean, and pole bean.

Managed by the small grains breeder at the University of Illinois, the small grains trial includes small plots planted on the research farm at the university and a replicated plot on an organic farm in Iroquois County. Plots are planted with a cone planter and harvested with small plot combines. The corn and beans are planted in small blocks or strips on farms across Illinois.

The biggest agronomic challenge for the project so far has been excessive rainfall and saturated soils, which lead to fusarium infection in small grains and poor performance of dry beans.

New varieties that have performed well include Rebellion corn, Warthog and Banatka hard red winter wheat. Banatka is a cross between landraces from the Republic of Georgia; researchers have documented that Georgian landraces are some of the most fusarium-resistant varieties of wheat in the world. Warthog wheat has performed well in New York state; in 2016 farmers in Illinois harvested 7,000 bushels of organic, food grade Warthog wheat with 11.5 percent protein, good falling numbers, and other metrics that are important for bakers. Glenn hard red spring wheat has also performed well and typically has protein levels of 13-15 percent. These two varieties are being used to create all-purpose flour that can be sold into local markets. Blending Glenn and Warthog in the bin allows farmers to produce consistent local flour that bakers can substitute for commodity wheat flour.

Breeding resilient corn for organic farms is another priority for the grain guild. One of the goals of our project is to determine the extent to which corn can be selected for resilience and nutritional density, and if nutrient-dense corn can succeed in the marketplace. Plant breeders, farmers, and researchers can produce nutrient-dense corn, and consumers are asking for nutritious food grown sustainably. The challenge is to simultaneously develop these varieties and the markets and infrastructure to support them.

Corn offers a significant opportunity for rebuilding regional food systems. Residents of the Corn Belt are surrounded by corn, and the Midwest has ideal soil and weather for growing corn. Why not maximize its use as human food? Corn has sustained human civilizations for thousands of years, and has tremendous potential to play a larger role as a whole food in modern diets. Consequently, this project also focuses on cooking classes, taste tests, and testing new recipes that use local grain.

Kendall College in Chicago is helping with this work by opening a Bread Lab for testing and evaluating different grains and beans. Their work will help educate students, consumers, chefs and bakers about the potential for using local grain. The goal is to help people appreciate local grain and the contribution their food choices can make to foster a sustainable agriculture based on diverse crop rotations.

Modern, open-pollinated, open-source synthetic varieties of corn are another promising area of research. Synthetic varieties are comprised of inbred lines and can also include open-pollinated varieties. Synthetic varieties made from modern, improved genetics offer an alternative to hybrid corn. Goals for breeding synthetics include selecting for N efficiency, vigorous roots, quick growth, and a plant architecture and leaf shape that result in a more resilient and competitive corn plant. These varieties will be created and refined using modern plant breeding techniques such as high-throughput phenotyping and molecular markers. They have the potential to reduce input costs and provide consistent and stable yields that will result in higher net profits for farmers. Farmers can save seed, and new economic models can be developed to support smaller independent seed companies.

The grain guild is applying for funding to create an organic staple crop seed system for the Midwest. If this $2 million dollar Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant is funded, the project will use winter nurseries, modern plant breeding techniques, and modern genetics derived from ExPVP lines to breed varieties for organic farms.
The primary challenges to developing this system are not agronomic, but social. Questions that need to be addressed for this to work include the following: Will farmers accept corn that is more variable than hybrids? Will farmers accept and grow corn that yields less than the best hybrids? Can farmers and food system entrepreneurs work together, focus on what they have in common and create next generation cooperatives and other business models based on resilient varieties that can deliver sustainable net profits back to farms?

Harold Wilken is one example of a Central Illinois farmer who is embracing this movement toward a regional, organic staple crop economy. Wilken is building a mill and plans to sell flour into wholesale accounts in Chicago.

“Coming from a conventional background, I have found a new and profound excitement in being an organic farmer,” Wilken said. “I am energized by participating in research and breeding new varieties of corn, beans, and small grains for direct human consumption.”

John Navazio, a plant breeder for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, has had a long and diverse career breeding hybrid and open-pollinated vegetables. In a recent Farmer to Farmer podcast, Navazio shared his perspective on open-pollinated varieties and genetic diversity. “In variation is in fact life, and is beauty, and is adaptiveness and genetic variation that is meaningful in terms of resiliency and the environment…” he said. “People are starting to see that as a value again. They’re seeing it, just like they are seeing the variation on their farms, and their systems, and the ecosystem. They are seeing the validity of how that is the true robustness and resilience of the system.”

This approach to breeding and seed production offers a new vision for sustainable food systems based on the values of diversity, resilience, cooperation, independence, and sharing. Fresh whole grains can provide nutrient-dense food to people and help counter the trend toward a population that is increasingly overfed and undernourished. Open source seeds adapted to organic farms offer farmers a chance to add value to their crops and build the relationships and infrastructure necessary to create viable regional food systems.

Bill Davison is an organic farmer turned Extension Educator for the University of Illinois. 

From the January | February 2017 Issue

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