Open-Pollinated Corn Seed Takes Root

Growers unravel hybrid corn seed.

Yellow Corn On The Cob

Open-pollinated varieties offer complex taste and greater tolerance for regional growing conditions.

Photo By Fotolia/coco

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Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley had been around farming long enough to recognize the writing on the wall. He knew seed consolidation was coming.

As a child, he watched farmers, who once saved their own homegrown seeds, begin buying seed at the store. On his own farm, Diffley noticed silage corn varieties dwindle to just a few hybrid varieties bred for warmer climates. When seed companies began to consolidate in the 1990s, he knew sweet corn options would shrink next.

As sweet corn varieties dwindled in the marketplace, so did Diffley’s choices for growing tasty corn adapted for Minnesota’s short growing season. Much of the hybrid seed either required too long a growing season, sacrificed complex taste for sweetness, or were guilty of both shortcomings. Additionally, you have to buy seeds rather than produce them yourself – hybrid varieties don’t produce seeds that will result in identical future generations, because in those next generations, the genes will have segregated into new combinations. So the grower has to rely on seed companies.

But then, some six years ago, Diffley began to talk with the nonprofit Organic Seed Alliance and University of Wisconsin-Madison seed researcher Bill Tracy about growing an open-pollinated sweet corn suited for northern climates.

While corn seed production in the United States is overwhelmingly geared toward producing hybrid seed corn, there are a handful of corn breeders who are working to create strong open-pollinated varieties that will not only come closer to competing with hybrids for high yields, but will also offer more complex taste and greater tolerance for regional growing conditions. As one of these breeders, Diffley has a new variety of corn set to debut on the marketplace sometime in the next year.

Corn breeding is a slow process that takes years to accomplish. To make strong open-pollinated seed, corn breeders are now creating new composite varieties by allowing popular hybrids to revert to their parent varieties, and then breeding those into vital and stable open-pollinated strains. By growing out the hybrids, breeders quickly identify the characteristics they don’t need, but it can be quite a shock to a farmer like Diffley. Half of his experimental crop died in the cold soil his first year of growing.

The simplicity of breeding corn made the crop an early favorite for hybridization in the first quarter of the 20th century. Hybrid variety emergence in the marketplace coincided with a boom in corn production in the country, as hybrid crops quickly boosted yields. Research on open-pollinated varieties soon lagged because they didn’t seem to hold as much promise.

Appearances may have been somewhat deceiving, says North Dakota State University corn researcher Frank Kutka. Some of that boost in yield might have been for other reasons. Germination rates for saved seeds were dreadfully low at the time because farmers often didn’t properly save seed, while hybrids had a germination rate of more than 90 percent. Also, crop insurance encouraged farmers to invest in fertilizer around the same time hybrids became popular, which led to higher yields. Comparing open-pollinated varieties of yesteryear to today’s hybrids is an apples-to-oranges comparison, he says.

So far, the market for open-pollinated corn is still limited, but it may grow in coming years, says Jack Lazor, a Vermont corn grower who has been growing several open-pollinated varieties that thrive at his farm near the Quebec border.

Farmers need more regional variety than what’s offered for the Corn Belt, Lazor says, and they want the security that the breeds they love won’t disappear from the catalog. 

Kutka sells seeds here and there, but he also just gives some away; one of the largest open-pollinated projects in the country involves a group of Amish farmers in Tennessee using his donated 1776 variety of open-pollinated corn. That kind of sharing is common among the tight-knit community of open-pollinated enthusiasts, and it is more a passion than a business for many growers. 

It may be that sense of community that keeps open-pollination efforts alive despite the economic odds against it.

It’s up to the passion of a handful of knowledgeable enthusiasts like Diffley to keep the process moving forward. A music lover at heart, Diffley talks about long-gone varieties the way some would talk about forgotten jazz records. But he also talks with an eager tone of secrecy about what to call the new open-pollinated variety that will be ready for sale anytime now.

“It will have a name with a story,” says Diffley. “It will have a good hook.”

Read more: Vegetable Seed Saving: What You Need to Know