Open-Pollinated Corn Seed Takes Root

Growers unravel hybrid corn seed.

| July/August 2013

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.

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