Organic Broadcaster

Illinois organic corn project shows promise, but needs more farms in trials

Lauren Quinn, University of Illinois

Mario Nunez digs up root samples to bring back to the Univesity of Illinois lab to analyze for the organic corn research project the university is running in partnership with organic farmers.

What if organic corn were developed for and by organic farmers? For farmers getting by with the limited options currently on the market, it may seem like a pipe dream. But a year-old University of Illinois project has big plans to make this happen.

“I think it’s super important to develop new varieties for organics rather than trying to make a conventional hybrid fit into an organic system,” said Will Glazik of Cow Creek Farm in Paxton, Illinois. “So when we were approached by the university, I thought this would be a fantastic idea, a way we could help. We offered support and land where we could trial new varieties and find something that’s going to work for organic growers.”

The concept, known as participatory research, pairs farmers with agronomists and plant breeders to select and test crops that fit the landscape, benefit the soil, and meet farmers’ specific market needs. Farmers grow experimental lines using everyday practices and feed information back to breeders, who make adjustments until the crops are ready for market. But it doesn’t stop there.

“Our project is unique because it integrates all the components of the food system, from the field to the table; it connects researchers, producers, consumers, and markets,” said Carmen Ugarte, the University of Illinois researcher leading the project. “Traditionally, farmers stop worrying about what happens to their corn after it is delivered to the grain elevator. But we’re trying to select cultivars with the end product in mind. And, we are keen to connect producers and consumers.”

The underlying goal of the project is to identify high-yielding, nutritious, nitrogen-use efficient, weed-competitive genotypes adapted to organic systems and compatible with market opportunities. It’s a tall order, given the wildly different soil conditions, management practices, and philosophies of the organic sector. To make it happen, they need more farmers.

On-Farm Research
In 2018, 16 farmers stepped up to participate. Most of them—13 farms in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana—set aside about a quarter of an acre for strip trials, to test the performance of eight to 10 varieties on-farm under normal management.

“From a farmer side of things, this is a nice, easy trial to put in,” said Glazik, whose family farms 640 acres and began transitioning back in 2002. “The team provides the hybrids and the layout they want, and it’s a crop I’m already growing. I prepped the field like I normally would for corn and left a little section for this trial. Then, rather than planting the hybrid I normally do, I planted these different hybrids in the layout they wanted.”

He reported some basic observations back to the university team, things like emergence and tasseling dates, but graduate students Christopher Mujjabi and Binod Ghimire and visiting scholar Mario Nunez did a lot of the heavy lifting during the field season. They visited each strip trial and evaluated indicators of soil health, measured additional plant characteristics, and harvested a subset. The research team has crunched the numbers, but Glazik didn’t need numbers to know what he saw.

“There were a couple of varieties that came out of the ground really nice, and some that had lots of surface area on the leaf. In terms of harvest, they dried down pretty good, and none of them fell over. Overall, they yielded fine. Didn’t see anything I didn’t like about them,” he said.

The seed came from a couple of private organic breeders—Walter Goldstein with the Mandaamin Institute in Wisconsin and Kevin Montgomery of Montgomery Consulting in Illinois—and were compared to a commercially available hybrid from Great Harvest Organics. Unlike modern conventional hybrids, Goldstein and Montgomery’s varieties were developed over many generations in cooperation with organic growers.

Next year, farmers in the strip trials will also have the opportunity to test several hybrids developed by Martin Bohn at U of I. Bohn has spent the last 16 years modifying conventional genetics to coax out characteristics important to organic farmers. This year, 10 of his hybrids were grown on Wyatt Muse’s farm in Champaign, Illinois, together with their parental inbreds to produce seed for the 2019 season.

With his sneak preview, Muse liked what he saw. “It’s really too early to tell what came out of it this year, but one thing I’m excited about is watching late-season standability. That’s one of the biggest challenges a lot of organic farmers face—getting that crop to finish upright. Some of it looks good so far,” he added.

Bohn’s hybrids were tested in 2018, just not in the strip trials. Instead, they were part of two intensive experimental trials set up in Illinois, with Jack Erisman and Joel Gruver as farmer collaborators.

The researchers chose the farms because they represent different approaches to organic management and contrasting soil conditions. Erisman, who operates Goldmine Farm in Pana, uses an extensive system with five- to seven-year rotations, incorporates livestock, and doesn’t use external fertility sources. At Western Illinois University’s Allison Farm in Macomb, Gruver uses a more intensive system with a three-year rotation and organic fertility from cover crops and external inputs.

“Each organic farm is its own little universe,” Bohn explained. “Farmers are interested in different types of cultivars and for different purposes. We’re trying to figure out how to take all of that into account and do something that will end up being valuable for most farmers in the organic community. It’s not easy.”

The inherent contrasts in the two farms, along with experimentally manipulated nitrogen levels, allowed the researchers to evaluate the performance of Bohn’s and Goldstein’s cultivars in conditions that represent the considerable variability across organic farms.

In addition to the standard measures of soil health and agronomic characteristics, researchers evaluated the root architecture of the cultivars, digging up and washing some 1,500 root systems.

Field Results
Now that roots have been scanned, soil fertility quantified, and harvest completed, the researchers are ready to report some preliminary results.

“This first look at the data really reflects the two approaches of breeding: corn that was bred in organic ground versus the materials developed at U of I in a conventional breeding program. When you look at the root response, it is obvious that these hybrids have different strategies of coping with low fertility,” explained Michelle Wander, a soil scientist at U of I. “The U of I materials are very responsive. They take advantage of resources when they’re available, moving all their energy out of roots and stems and into producing grain. This reflects the conditions under conventional management and the fact that they were developed in Illinois soils that typically have higher inherent soil fertility and water-holding capacity.”

On the other hand, she said, Goldstein’s organically derived materials expect stress because they were selected in sandy and less fertile soils in Wisconsin. They produce massive root systems that help the plant in low-fertility conditions and also provide standability. Even if they’re grown in optimal conditions, they still show similar root characteristics.

“From the conventional breeding point of view, that investment in root growth can be considered wasteful, but from a soil scientist’s point of view, that’s good. That’s organic matter,” Wander explained. “It’s good to select for complex and massive rooting systems as long as it doesn’t compromise yield.”

It didn’t. A Goldstein hybrid tied with one of Bohn’s as the top yielder, and both were comparable to the commercial check.

Results from the strip trials were all over the place, reflecting huge variability in soil conditions across the 13 farms. Overall, the more soil organic matter and fertility, the higher and more stable the yield across varieties. On farms with sandy soils and lower fertility, yields varied a lot more. But the good news was there were moderate to high-yielding varieties for almost every situation, including drought stress and soils with reduced organic matter.

Material harvested this year will continue to be analyzed for several other characteristics, including nutritional quality and taste. Ultimately, the goal is not only to provide a highly marketable seed product to farmers, but also to turn their grain into highly desirable food products that will fly off bakery and grocery store shelves or that will be palatable and nutritious in organic animal feed.

Need for More Farms
Although the results pointed to a few solid patterns, a big takeaway from the first year’s analysis is variability. To draw out more patterns, the researchers need to include as many situations as possible in their statistical analysis. That’s why they need more farmers to get involved in the strip trials.

“I think what they’re doing is great, and it doesn’t take much work from the farmer’s perspective,” Glazik said. “I don’t know many farmers that wouldn’t want to make more hybrids available for organic production. Most people would agree that the breeding program for organic lines is falling behind conventional. There’s some, but the variety isn’t near as big as it is in the conventional market.”

Muse credits seed companies for making significant strides in recent years, but admits the market is still limited. “They’ve gone from zero to…something,” he said. “The university is the only one doing research across multiple varieties that I’m aware of. I’m excited to see what comes out of it. Hopefully, their results can help people make an informed decision to transition their land into an organic system. Having an unbiased third party like the university administer something like this holds a lot of weight.”

Farmers participating in the Illinois corn research meet with the researchers, provide a small allocation of land, and make a few quick observations throughout the growing season. To get involved, contact Carmen Ugarte at or 217-300-5293.

The project also includes an educational network where members can exchange ideas and inform the direction of the project. See details at

Ugarte and her fellow researchers, all affiliated with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I, researchers will be presenting their work at the Organic Grain Conference in February in Champaign, Illinois. Information about the conference is at

The project is funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through its Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, grant
no. 2017-51300-27115.

Lauren Quinn is with the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.



From the January | February 2019 Issue

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