a new corn, bred for organic farms and gardens, tells a bigger story
WHAT MAKES THE SWEET CORN ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ stand out from other tempting catalog choices, besides its unusual name? It’s the new variety’s backstory, which speaks to an exciting movement to develop seed specifically for organic farms and gardens, often with a region-specific focus.
Organic seed commands a premium price, and limits my choices of vegetable varieties, but as regular readers know, I prefer it. I believe seed bred and raised under organic conditions is the best match for my organic garden’s conditions, and also want to vote with my dollars of demand to help create supply.
Having the right seed can provide farmers with the genetic tools to confront day-to-day challenges in the field, so to organic farmers, limited selection and higher prices in organic seed represent a far greater obstacle than to a gardener. Despite the phenomenal growth of the organic-foods industry, the supply of organic seed falls far short of demand–presenting a barrier to the expansion and success of organic farming. Meaning: Many organic foods didn’t start with organic seed.
‘Who Get’s Kissed?,’ the new organic sweet corn created in collaboration with Organic Seed Alliance, an organic farmer in Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, meant to do just that: to meet the organic grower’s needs.
Longtime corn breeder Bill Tracy (below), Agronomy Department chairman at Wisconsin-Madison and one partner behind the new variety, shared a glimpse of just what goes into creating such seeds. He also offered tips on growing great corn, as we kick off seed-catalog season on the blog and public-radio show. Listen in now, or read on, or both.
my q&a with corn breeder bill tracy
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your work at the University, Bill, and why corn in the first place—how did it get your interest, and become your career?
A. As a small child I grew up loving plants. Then in high school I had the good fortune to end up in an advanced biology class, where I learned about genetics. And then in college, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I learned that you could actually put those things together as a career. I actually grew up in suburban Boston—so I didn’t know you could do that.
I fell luckily into a program with an outstanding mentor who was crazy about corn, and I followed in his footsteps, so I’ve been working on corn since 1976.
It’s a great organism to work with. Corn’s kind of different from other crops. We often form kind of a personal relationship with the individual plants—they’re people-sized, and we can relate to them on that level.
Q. Before we delve into the new sweet-corn variety, we gardeners just need a fast genetics lesson. ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ is an open-pollinated variety, but you have developed hybrid corn varieties, too. Can you remind us of the difference?
A. Hybrid corn, without going too deeply, is made by crossing two inbreds together. Inbreds are highly uniform strains of corn that are created by self-pollination for numerous generations. When I say they’re highly uniform, I mean that there is no genetic variation in an inbred.
So we cross two inbreds that are different—let’s say A and B—and we get heterosis, or hybrid vigor. We also get something that modern agriculture likes: something that’s highly uniform. Every one of those hybrid plants is genetically identical to every other hybrid plant, and so they’re just about the same height; they flower at the same time; they’re ready to be harvested at the same time.
As I said, in modern agriculture, that’s what commercial farmers want: to be able to pick a plot, however big, all at the same time, and have the quality to be consistent. Hybrids really work well in modern, commercial agriculture.
OPs, or open-pollinated varieties, are the way corn was traditionally bred—and by traditionally I mean for the first 10,000 years or so. We’ve been doing hybrids for about 100 years. Prior to that all corn was open pollinated, which meant farmers would save the seeds from their farms, and every plant in a field would be slightly different—or even quite different. That variation would allow people to select strains that were adapted to their land—to their farm. It’s quite a different beast, if you will.
Q. Is there more diversity in that whole field of OP corn, than in a field of a hybrid?
A. Yes, in the group of individual hybrid plants there’s essentially no diversity–but one other piece of the genetics lesson: There is diversity within the plants of the hybrid, so if you save seed from them you get an explosion of diversity, but none of it’s what you originally had.
It’s similar to if you grow a seed of an orange or an apple, you’re not going to get a ‘McIntosh’ apple from a ‘McIntosh’ seed.
Q. Our mutual friend John Navazio has explained to me many times that sometimes seed breeders do that—start with seed from hybrids—and find the beginnings of their great discoveries. It’s potentially rich stuff.
A. Yes, it can be.
Q. Let’s talk about the backstory of the new sweet corn. As I understand it, one glimmer of what would become ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ began with an organic farmer in Minnesota who couldn’t find a vigorous organic sweet corn to suit his cool, wet spring soil. Conventional farmers can manage around this problem by using fungicide-treated seed, but as an organic farmer, he didn’t have that option. How did his wishlist item jump across state lines and find its way to you at WI-Madison?
A. Martin Diffley [photo above] is the farmer, a great organic farmer who for many years had the famous Gardens of Eagan organic farm in the Minneapolis area. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of corn—he’s just amazing—and a lot of fun to work with.
John Navazio and he were going to an organic-farming conference, and they didn’t know each other, but struck up a conversation. Martin complained he was concerned he might lose his access to seed he could plant organically, that would work on his farm. He had historically lost a lot of varieties as seed companies shifted away from old varieties.
Q. In all the consolidation happening in the seed industry, varieties that were not as profitable were eliminated?
A. Exactly. John Navazio got his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, and his cucumber patch was next to my sweet corn patch. We used to stand in the neutral ground and talk plant breeding. So he knew very well what I was doing, and said he had to get me and Martin together. That’s how it happened.
A. It’s been a fun, fun activity, and I’ve had two graduate students who had major roles and are both now breeding organic seed. They’re now a couple of people in the very tiny cohort who breed organic, and have been trained to breed organic—so that’s a fabulous byproduct of this process.
[Above, left to right, John Navazio, then-Wisconsin graduate students Jared Zystro and Adrienne Shelton, and Bill Tracy.]
The other thing that has been such fun: We grow the corn on Martin’s farm, and it’s variable, as we discussed. What we do is all get together in August and start biting ears—and argue over which is better, and which we should save. It makes plant breeding, which can sometimes be a solitary activity, a social one, and collaborative.
It’s a partnership between Organic Seed Alliance, and Martin Diffley and his wife, Atina, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A fourth partner came in later, High Mowing Organic Seeds, which is marketing ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ seed.
Q. Where did ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ start genetically—what resources in your collection of corn genetics did you call upon?
A. I’ve been a breeder at Wisconsin for 30 years, and I’ve developed many lines and done selection in lots of populations. I don’t always just breed inbreds and hybrids; I’ve in the past developed improved populations. I just happened to have something on the shelf that was really suited to what Martin was interested in. It wasn’t a finished variety, but it had the genetic variation I thought would fit what Martin wanted.
Q. Like facing that cool, wet soil issue?
A. I don’t want to overstate how tolerant this is to that—that’s one of the dangers with any sweet corn. You can always be too cool; corn never is totally cold-resistant.
Q. Don’t plant this in March in the Northeast. [Laughter.]
A. Exactly. The other thing this material I started with had was good quality. Martin was famous for producing high-quality sweet corn in the Minneapolis area. So it had to not just be cold-tolerant, but it had to be high quality. I had some stuff along those lines. As John Navazio has talked to you about–using the seed from hybrids to create new varieties–I had four different sugary-enhancer varieties. That’s one of the different types of corn we have—sugary enhancer hybrids—and I inter-mated all four of them. So there was a tremendous amount of diversity in this population.
We were able to select what we think is a good-eating-quality, reasonably cold-soil-resistant variety. The biggest endorsement: Martin is happy with it.
Q. The kernels are white and yellow?
A. Yes, and a few have a tinge of pink in them, though I’m not sure exactly where that came from.
Q. You ought to know, if anyone does. [Laughter.]
A. Corn is a highly variable organism, and it throws out mutants. But ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ is mainly yellow and white.
Q. How many years does it generally take from conception to release of a new corn variety?
A. Probably 10.
Q. How does that compare in timeline to other familiar crops that your colleagues with other specialties work on?
A. Some species are pretty quick. As you know from your own gardening experience with snap beans, for instance. A breeder might be able to get as many as five generations in a year with snap beans. With sweet corn, the best we could hope if we were really organized and had lots of resources, we might be able to do three, but more likely two. And by that I mean one in the summer here, and one in the greenhouse or in a warmer area to get a second generation in the same year.
What we did with this corn: We did the selection on Martin Diffley’s farm, but then inter-mated the corn in South America. It would have taken twice as long if we didn’t have those resources.
Q. You must be patient to be a seed breeder.
A. Yes, but I also like to say that you have to be impatient: You have to be anxious to get what you want.
Q. So bigger picture: Why does this kind of collaborative organic breeding project matter—why do we need a corn like this, or another variety of a crop that strives to solve a particular challenge in the field for organic growers in a particular region?
A. I think it’s important because it creates more diversity and variation that other farmers and gardeners and maybe even some of the commercial folks might like to use as material for their own farm.
As a public plant breeder, my goal is definitely not to duplicate what the commercial folks are doing. My goal is to introduce new germplasm that’s unique and can actually fill a niche—in this case an open-pollinated, Northern-tier variety that will do well for farmers like Martin.
What all plant breeders strive to do is create something new and useful.
Q. The fact that such a variety is OP is important to the farmers who will use it, and can continue to refine it in their own location, yes?
A. There is a group of organic growers, though by no means all, who want to adapt crops to their specific ecosystem. By ecosystem we can even say the micro-ecosystem of their farm. That really isn’t possible with hybrid crops, or it would take a very, very long time.
We’re providing a resource that people can immediately start selecting for adaptation to their farm, if they choose. It’s not a simple matter, but they can start if they are interested.
Q. Since my audience is mostly gardeners, is seed-saving of corn practical in the home garden?
A. They certainly can do it, but it’s a question of whether they want to. Sweet corn is a big plant, and we figure you need 100 and preferably 200 ears from that plot to avoid inbreeding. So you have to devote a lot of space to saving seed.
You also have to continue to select for quality. As you grow that seed out year after year, natural selection will select for kernels that literally are tougher, and probably will have less sugar, because sugar is actually not good for kernels to germinate. A person has to be very careful because a population will do what plant breeders call drift—it will drift away from what they want.
For the home gardener that’s not a big deal. They can use it for a few years, and they can always go back to High Mowing for fresh seed when they need it. But as a plant breeder I know drift is very important, and it can be used to the advantage of the gardener or breeder, as when we’re maybe selecting for disease resistance. But with almost any crop that is variable—like an open-pollinated corn—the quality traits must be maintained with vigilance.
A. I’m not sure they are secrets, but corn is a heavy feeder; it likes a lot of Nitrogen. You don’t want to see those bottom leaves turning yellow. There are various ways organic gardeners can provide that, including a rotation of a legume crop, like clover.
Q. So a green manure, or cover crop.
A. Yes, and corn also prefers a well-drained soil. It has deep roots; corn can put roots down 6 feet, so it can get to the water, but if the soil is not well-drained, those plants will get stunted.
And then weed control. I see a lot of growers using black plastic as a barrier, or straw mulch. A lot of our growers are actually transplanting now [instead of direct-sowing into the field]. An advantage to that: You can put out a plant that’s maybe 3 or 4 or 5 inches tall, and can outcompete the weeds.
The final thing: our friend the raccoons. [Laughter.]
Q. Whose friends are they? [Laughter.]
A. We have that system called the Three Sisters, where you grow squash around the base of the plants. That might help. You also want to have a plant that’s big enough so the raccoons can’t get to the ears as easily. I think ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ would provide that.
how the corn was named
‘WHO GETS KISSED?’ got its name from a game played at corn-husking bees, explains Organic Seed Alliance. Those historic community events coupled husking corn with fun activities, such as dancing. “Corn was much more genetically diverse back then,” says OSA, “and when a person found an ear with all red kernels, known as a ‘pokeberry ear,’ instead of yellow kernels, they could choose one person among the group to kiss.” Read more on the ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ history at High Mowing Organic Seeds’ blog (where the historic print, above, of the winner claiming his dance-partner prize, came from). The seed is for sale in their catalog at this link.
prefer the podcast?
BILL TRACY was the guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The December 29, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.