Organic Broadcaster

Open-pollinated corn growing strong on Midwest farms

By Frank Kutka

Open-pollinated corn, like this vibrant orange Dziekuje, offers growers a wide range of colors, flavors, and nutritional profiles as well as the possibility to save seed or obtain it at a reasonable price from another grower. Photo by Frank Kutka

With the advent of hybridization more than 100 years ago, who would have imagined that open-pollinated (OP) corn would still exist in the 21st century? Hybrid corn breeders have produced hundreds of varieties that stand well, tolerate difficult conditions, mature all at the same time, and yield impressive quantities of grain or forage. So why are genetically diverse varieties from which farmers save their own seeds still out there?

Some farmers—organic and conventional—like the process of growing seed from our own selections. This type of independence suits us and creates seed at a very reasonable price, which is especially appealing when grain markets are down.

The diversity of corn is also incredible. By saving seed of traditional and newer varieties of OP corn we are able to enjoy their flavors, nutritional quality, colors, and the stories behind them. There are just so many possibilities among varieties that do not have to be purchased every year.

Some Native American communities have been hunting for, finding, and increasing seed of traditional OP varieties that had been lost to them during forced relocation and the decades of mandatory boarding school that altered farming traditions for many. In recent years, Facebook has had many posts about happy growers taking part in these successful rematriation efforts. A new collaborative organization, the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network, has been formed to facilitate this process and to promote education about seed-keeping among Native communities.

Thankfully, traditional OP corn has been with the Oneida in eastern Wisconsin for a long while. Last year they had a particularly large harvest of their white corn. It was lovely to see the dozens upon dozens of braids hanging to dry amid many full gravity boxes at the Tsyunhehkwa Center this winter. It makes great corn soup!

There are many OP corn growers in the Midwest. Tom Jerde, from western Wisconsin, has developed a variety on his farm that he calls Jerde’s Maize, a high-protein dent corn with resistance to multiple diseases and pests. He also grows and sells Jerde’s Red, a sweet corn with kernels that turn wine red.

Stanley Smith from southeastern Minnesota recently completed a USDA-SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education) grant project growing six varieties of OP organic corn. His goal was to find a suitable variety for livestock feed that could yield well enough with its higher nutritional traits so as to be financially feasible. He found that all but one of the varieties he trialed had protein levels over 10% while the hybrid he grew had only 8.41%. He figured the increased protein in the OP corn would save $1.16 per 100 pounds of a 16% feed ration. (Read more at bit.ly/SARE-OPcorn.)

While grain yields of OP corn varieties, often 75-150 bu/acre, are generally lower than the very best hybrids, whole plant production can be competitive with many of the hybrids. Also, the quality of OP corn silage is often good, and the seed price of OP varieties can be very reasonable.

Growing for silage, especially on smaller farms, represents the bulk of the OP seed that is sold. Many of OP varieties grown in the field (Reid, Moore, Krug, Minnesota 13, Wapsie Valley, Rainbow Flint, Silver King, Bloody Butcher, etc.) are also very reasonable for silage, and there are more seeds of more varieties available in quantity today.

OP seed markets have been rediscovering colorful varieties from across the Americas and beyond. Varieties like Glass Gem have reminded many that corn can be stunningly lovely, and they have proven the value in saving seed. Varieties with red, purple, blue, or spotted seeds have also been making a splash in recent years. One of my favorite new varieties has little eagles on the tops of the seeds, and was bred in Montana.

A few of us breeders are releasing or will soon release new orange varieties that have ancestors from South America. Tasty flint types from Italy, some of them orange, too, are also finding places in the expanding list of available OP varieties.

Some of the colorful types of corn are high in anthocyanins (blue colors like in blueberries) or carotenoids (yellow and orange colors like in squash and carrots), valuable phytonutrients. They make colorful dishes that delight the senses. Gardeners certainly appear eager to try more of these colorful varieties.

New Markets
The local foods movement has opened up some new market opportunities for OP varieties. In some locations, folks have rediscovered eating corn as grits (mush, polenta, mamaliga) and cornbreads. Cornbread recipes now are not just buttery and sweet, but also savory to serve with soup, chili, or spicy salsa. Many traditional varieties, like the flints and flours once commonly grown across the northern U.S. and into Canada, are very flavorful when prepared in these ways, although many could use improvement for modern growing situations. Some of the Italian varieties that have made a big splash in these markets are late maturing, which is a problem up north. Along with the traditional varieties, I anticipate seeing some new OP varieties developed to meet the needs of these specialty markets for high quality corn grown locally.

Makoshika, an open-pollinated variety of popcorn, has brilliantly colored seeds. There are also many varieties of multicolored sweet corn. Photo by Frank Kutka

Another area where high quality is especially important is sweet corn. The immature grains we prize are sweet and delicious, and they need to be tender. The plants also need to be healthy and productive in the field. There are many traits to stack up when breeding up a good sweet corn. Who Gets Kissed is one recent introduction that has been successful. It was developed here in the Midwest via Participatory Plant Breeding, a process where farmers take part in the selection and development of the variety with assistance from professional breeders. (Read more on how they developed Who Gets Kissed at mosesorganic.org/organic-sweet-corn.)

A few years ago, Jonathon Spero bred and released Tophat and Tuxana, two OP varieties with the flavor, “mouth feel,” and productivity many of us look for in sweet corn. His newer projects include bicolor, orange, and multicolored varieties. Other sweet OP varieties coming along include earlier super sweet types and even a purple-seeded variety. Older classics like Golden Bantam, Ashworth, Aunt Mary’s, Sunshine, small-statured Yukon Chief, Orchard Baby, and more continue to flourish in the garden seed trade.

Popcorn remains a popular type of corn, and there are great OP varieties in the marketplace and among seed savers. Dakota Black is an old variety from North Dakota that has been showing itself to be productive in many locations. Some of the traditional popping types from Mexico, especially Chapalote varieties, are also moving into some catalogs and seed-saving projects further north. I have a multicolored variety that continues to be selected for earliness and popping expansion, and there are others coming from other breeders, too. A beautiful thing about popcorn is that no matter the color of the seeds, it always pops in a familiar color.

Breeding Issues
The introduction of transgenic hybrid varieties continues to be a huge problem for those who want OP and hybrid varieties with the natural genetic variation corn has had since it originated. Pollen flies a long way, sometimes several miles. This has always been an issue for growing pure varieties, but now there is also the constant irritation of having bacterial and other modified genes popping up in our seeds.

Several companies dropped well-known OP varieties a few years back when tests for transgene contamination kept coming back positive. However, tightened isolation protocols with distances of up to five miles, the use of more border rows, and regular testing for contamination in every seed lot, have allowed a small resurgence in OP seed availability. Tens of thousands of seed packets and many bushels of quality OP corn are still being sold annually with no contamination.

Gametophytic incompatibility is a trait where the silk on the corn plants only supports and guides the growth of pollen that also carries the same trait. This has helped with growing popcorn in areas with dented field corn. This trait has been a means of growing pure specialty corn varieties for many decades now. It is not absolute, but it adds an important tool for helping with isolation.

With support from the Organic Farming Research Foundation, some breeders have been developing and releasing lines with these traits in order to grow organic corn for feed and seed that is free of transgenic and other contamination. The genes being worked into new field corn varieties include Ga1s, from South American popcorn, and also Ga2s and Tcb1s, both from teosinte, the weedy relative of corn. Breeders across the country, public and private, are working these genes into new hybrids and OP varieties, including sweet corn and other specialty types that are now in the pipeline.

The field corn OP varieties with gametophytic incompatibility (Ga1s) that have been publicly released in the last few seasons (Liberty, Rebellion, Revolt, Uprising) have been synthetic varieties. This term causes some negative reactions, but it is used in its original meaning as it has been used in corn breeding since the early 20th century. A synthetic variety is one that is bred up from a number of inbred parents that have all been proven to have good breeding value. Synthetics are OP varieties that are built up from many inbred lines, or synthesized, using old-style breeding and pollen-control techniques. They are natural corn that has just been bred very intensively, and they can be maintained like any other OP seed once in farmers’ hands. Unfortunately, farmers in the north have had few synthetic varieties to consider despite their common use elsewhere.

The theoretical limit for yield of synthetics is about 95% of good hybrids, but such a yield would be very hard to achieve, especially in high-yielding environments. For now, the grain yield of OP varieties is expected to continue to lag behind the very best single-cross hybrids, including under organic management.

It is the other values that OP corn varieties bring (independence, flavor, quality, low-cost seed, low-cost forage, tradition) that make them competitive and interesting for modern growers.

Frank Kutka has a doctorate in plant breeding and has worked with farmers across the country on small grain- and corn-breeding projects. He currently farms near Brussels, Wis

 

 

From the May | June 2019 Issue

 

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