Open-Pollinated Corn Seed Takes Root

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Open-pollinated varieties offer complex taste and greater tolerance for regional growing conditions.
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Open-pollinated enthusiasts often share seeds.

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

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