Small-Scale Farmers Could Produce Corn Smut on Purpose

One university researcher is trying to make it easy for small-scale farmers to grow corn smut and provide for a market in need.

Corn smut

Texas researchers are trying to develop methods for small-scale farmers to grow corn smut.

Photo courtesy FARM SHOW Magazine

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Veronica Guzman’s research focuses on growing corn smut — on purpose. That goes against the sensibilities of conventional crop producers, but Guzman isn’t working for large-operation farmers.

“We’re trying to develop methods for small-scale farmers for direct marketing. We’re looking for high-value alternative crops in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas,” she says.

The Aztecs were the first people known to eat corn smut, which is considered a delicacy in Mexico City and other regions of Mexico. The fungus has a mild, earthy flavor and is used in a variety of recipes. Nutritionally, it’s packed with unique proteins and minerals, and loaded with lysine, an essential amino acid. It has more cholesterol fighting beta-glucans than oatmeal.

“Huitlacoche sells for $20 to $30 a pound, and around Chicago it’s successfully marketed to restaurants,” Guzman says. “We are at the border of Mexico and have a large Hispanic population so people are more likely to know what it is.”

The former USDA lab technician works as a program coordinator for the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, and acquired a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) grant for her research.

The fungus that grows into corn smut is common in most soils and occurs randomly when weather conditions are hot and dry or cool and wet during pollination. Getting it to grow consistently is more challenging.

Guzman’s challenge is to develop a method that makes it easy for a farmer to access and apply the spores to inoculate his sweet corn or field corn. Biological supply companies could provide spores, and Guzman believes that farmers could use backpack sprayers or automatic syringes to inoculate corn.

With recent publicity, she’s had calls from chefs, so she knows there is a market. With two more trials and workshops and events with farmers, she is hopeful that huitlacoche becomes a viable crop for local producers with small acreages.

More information about her research can be found at the Southern SARE website, or you can email her at guzmanva@utpa.edu.

Reprinted with permission from FARM SHOW Magazine.