Organic Broadcaster

Farmers, breeders collaborate on new organic sweet corn

By Kristina Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance

Organic Farmer Martin Diffley has a new variety of sweet corn to plant this spring, thanks to his collaboration with the University of Wisconsin and the Organic Seed Alliance. Photo by Organic Seed Alliance

Seven years ago, Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley decided that sweet corn offerings in his seed catalogues weren’t cutting it. He had noticed a decline in vigor in most of the sugary enhanced sweet corn varieties available, and needed a variety that performed well under organic conditions. He also was looking for a variety that tolerated the cool soils typical of spring in Minnesota.

He approached John Navazio, Organic Seed Alliance’s senior scientist at the time, who connected Diffley with University of Wisconsin–Madison sweet corn breeder Bill Tracy. Tracy was already selecting for cool soil emergence in sweet corn, and a collaborative plant-breeding project emerged.

Over the years, this breeding team, which also included University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students Jared Zystro (now with Organic Seed Alliance) and Adrienne Shelton, worked together to select for early plant vigor, disease resistance, good flavor, high yield, and large ears. The result is a new sweet corn variety called “Who Gets Kissed?”—the first release in a series of open-pollinated sweet corn varieties developed in partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Organic Seed Alliance, and organic farmers.

“Our approach to plant breeding is what sets ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ apart from other sweet corn varieties in the marketplace,” said Micaela Colley, executive director of Organic Seed Alliance. “‘Who Gets Kissed?’ was not only bred under organic farming conditions, but organic farmers were equal partners in the breeding effort.”

Much of the sweet corn seed planted in the U.S. was developed—and is owned—by the biggest players in the business: Syngenta and Monsanto. Their control reflects the highly consolidated seed industry, one that puts shareholder profits before the independence of farmers.

Bill Tracy with the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows off an ear of “Who Gets Kissed?,” a new variety of sweet corn bred for cool soils, resistance to rust and corn smut, and suited to organic production. Photo by Organic Seed Alliance

Because “Who Gets Kissed?” is open-pollinated, it is possible to save and maintain the seed, which generally is not feasible with hybrids. This variety also isn’t sold with restrictive intellectual property protections attached to it, such as a utility patent. In fact, farmers are encouraged to select, save, and re-plant the best seed from their harvests. In so doing, they will be adapting the variety to their own regional climates, farming practices, and market needs.

“Most of the sweet corn varieties in the marketplace that demonstrate similar traits are hybrids,” said Adrienne Shelton, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student who worked on the project as a student of Tracy’s. “Hybrids are developed to be genetically uniform, where the ears are the same color and same size, and they mature at the same time. ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ has similar traits, but was developed for organic growers who appreciate a more diverse, open-pollinated sweet corn, and who may want to save seed and start their own participatory plant-breeding project.”

The variety’s name is based on a game played at corn husking bees – a historic community event that coupled husking corn with fun activities, such as dancing. Corn was much more genetically diverse back then, and when a person found an ear with all red kernels, known as a “pokeberry ear,” they could choose one person among the group to kiss.

“Who Gets Kissed?” has yellow and white kernels. It yields well, tolerates cool soils, and is resistant to common rust and corn smut. The variety also demonstrates superior flavor and sweetness. It’s now available through High Mowing Organic Seeds.

Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds, is excited about both the variety and the unique partnership that developed it.

“This new sweet corn variety is an example of the amazing results that can be achieved in open-pollinated and collaborative breeding, where the consumer, farmer, breeder, seed grower, and all other stakeholders are involved,” Stearns said. “Innovative varieties with a dynamic process like this connect the dots and foster a deeper engagement in developing the food system of the future.”

Participatory plant breeding, where farmers and formal breeders collaborate on farm-based breeding projects to improve agricultural crops, is an efficient model that emphasizes shared benefits. This decentralized model of breeding has resulted in more high-quality organic seed and more farmers gaining skills for developing their own varieties. As another example, next year Organic Seed Alliance will release “Abundant Bloomsdale” spinach, a variety bred in partnership with eight organic farms. The variety has excellent flavor and texture, and will soon be offered through a number of companies that sell organic seed.

Development of “Who Gets Kissed?” sweet corn was funded in part by the Organic Farming Research Foundation and USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). Organic plant breeding currently relies heavily on federal funding through the OREI program. While extremely valuable for advancing organic plant breeding in the public sector, the reliance on one program—especially a program that funds organic research broadly, not just plant breeding—means these cutting-edge breeding projects are vulnerable.

Funding for public plant breeding was discussed at length at the 2014 Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture held earlier this year in Washington, DC. The monumental summit was hosted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International and brought together public and private plant breeders, seed and food companies, and farmers and policy advocates for presentations and discussion on how best to improve our nation’s public plant breeding infrastructure. The proceedings include urgent recommendations for reinvigorating public research that delivers regionally adapted and diverse seed options to farmers.

(Read the full proceedings at rafiusa.org/programs/just-foods/2014-seeds-breeds-summit.)

Among the recommendations is the need to create a new federal program that funds the development of new plant varieties to fill existing gaps, including for organic agriculture. The main objective of this program would be to deliver regionally adapted varieties held in the public domain, and the program would encourage projects that emphasize participatory plant breeding, such as the one that brought us “Who Gets Kissed?” sweet corn.

Beth Rasgorshek is an organic seed producer and owner of Canyon Bounty Farm in Nampa, Idaho. She says farmers play a crucial role in building our nation’s seed supply for modern agriculture to expand, thrive, and meet new agricultural challenges.

“Organic farmers need more options in seed that’s adapted to organic conditions and to their local climates and markets,” Rasgorshek explained. “Our public land grant universities need adequate funding and staffing to carry out the critical work of engaging organic farmers in participatory plant breeding projects. I, for one, would jump on an opportunity like this tomorrow.”

To receive updates on participatory plant breeding projects, including the release of other new plant varieties bred in partnership with organic farmers, join Organic Seed Alliance’s quarterly newsletter at www.seedalliance.org.

Kristina Hubbard works for the Organic Seed Alliance.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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