New efforts to breed sweet corn for Vermont farmers

Seed corn

Early Riser seed corn on its way to the dryer at Butterworks Farm in North Troy. Photo courtesy Butterworks Farm.

It was a busy August for Tom Stearns, founder and president of High Mowing Seeds, an organic seed company in Wolcott. Aside from all the usual harvest chores to oversee, Stearns and his company also hosted a group of organic plant breeders from around the country. It may seem ironic that a plant-breeding conference was hosted in Vermont, Stearns said.

“Nobody on the planet is breeding for Vermont,” Stearns said.

As public funding for seed-breeding programs has dried up and the seed industry has consolidated, seed companies have focused on breeding for conditions found in the U.S. farm belt. The entire East Coast is often neglected by large-scale seed companies, save for tomato and orange varieties in Florida and watermelon seeds in Georgia. Vermont is often ignored, Stearns said.

Tom Stearns

Tom Stearns, president of High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, works in the research fields at his farm.

But that may change as the agricultural community looks to find new strategies for growing more food for a hungry planet while at the same time grappling with higher energy costs, Stearns said. Agricultural experts are trying to find ways to boost the genetic diversity of seed stock and grow crops to thrive in specific microclimates.

In Vermont, there still are farmers who grow their own seed out of necessity, since there aren’t enough good varieties in the marketplace for the state’s climate, said Stearns. And with a market heavily dependent on direct sales to consumers, Vermont farmers grow a high percentage of heirloom varieties for farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs. This means that Vermont may have some of the most vibrant and diversified crop genetics in the country, and plant geneticists are beginning to take note, Stearns said.

“Vermont actually matters more than any other place on the planet,” he said.

One can see this dynamic just beginning to play out with sweet corn production. High Mowing Seeds recently announced it will introduce four new varieties of organic hybrid sweet corn in time for the next growing season. It will be the first organic sweet corn designed specifically for Vermont’s growing season.

A section of the organic corn breeding field at High Mowing Seeds, where the corn is hand pollinated to make test crosses as part of the process of developing new varieties. Photo courtesy of High Mowing Seeds

High Mowing Seeds’ launch of the four varieties is just one of a handful of grassroots efforts to strengthen corn seed choice for the New England region. Corn seed breeding is skewered heavily toward growing conventional corn for large-scale agriculture in the Corn Belt, and there are few varieties available on the market for New England farmers, said Margaret Smith, a corn geneticist at Cornell University. In 2011, Smith worked with Lakeview Organic Grain in New York to create a new New England organic corn variety for Blue River Hybrids, an Iowa-based organic seed company. The University of Wisconsin is also working with a pair of Minnesota farmers to breed cold-tolerant corn that could thrive in New England.

Corn-breeding, when not done in a lab, still has an old-fashioned feel to it. The tools and techniques haven’t changed much, Smith said. Corn breeders plant seeds and try and stress their crops to kill off the weaklings. Those that survive the cold New England climate are bred manually with other surviving varieties by lopping off the silk tassels of one corn plant and using it to pollinate another, Smith said.

“Me and my crew are all headed out to the fields to play bumblebees,” Smith said.

Seed corn

Early Riser corn ready for picking at Butterworks Farm. Photo courtesy Butterworks Farm.

Old-fashioned may be the way to go for corn breeding in Vermont, as the varieties available to breed are often open-pollinated seeds or forgotten hybrid varieties that are still in the public domain. Unlike hybrids, open-pollinated corn seed can be saved to grow the same variety the next year, said Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield. Lazor mainly grows grain to feed his herd of cows and to sell to other dairy farmers. Growing grain has been his passion since the ’70s, and he began growing open-pollinated corn when he couldn’t find a steady supply of a corn variety that would thrive in his fields near the Quebec border. He believes growing open-pollinated corn can cut down on production costs and ensure that a favorite variety of corn won’t disappear from a seed catalog, he said.

“It’s the only way that we’re going to deliver independence from the big seed companies,” Lazor said.

Open-pollinated corn also has the advantage of being bred specifically for a farm’s microclimate, he said. Each season, the genetics of a crop changes with the growing season’s conditions. Lazor carefully selects seed to save from the most robust stalks, and feeds the rest to his cows.

“I just like knowing that my seeds grew up in the same neighborhood,” Lazor said.

Picking Early Riser ear corn for seed at Butterwork Farms in North Troy. Photo courtesy Butterworks Farm.

Lazor is part of a small grassroots network of corn breeders who are working to create strong open-pollinated varieties that not only will come closer to competing with hybrids for high yields, but also could offer more complex taste and greater tolerance for regional growing conditions. Open-pollinated enthusiasts unravel the genes of non-GMO hybrids and cross them back together again as stable open pollinators.

But though Lazor and Stearns brim with enthusiasm when they discuss their breeding work, they admit that their efforts are still a drop in the bucket. While Stearns believes it is vital to strengthen regional varieties of corn and other crops, he says the funding doesn’t reflect the potential value to society.

“A lot of the work that we’re doing is on a serious shoestring,” Stearns said. “We would need acres more in seed production that we have now.”

Craig Idlebrook

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  • Jack stonge

    Is this just old fashioned genetic engineering?Sounds like it to me!

    • Paula Schramm

      Let’s be very clear about this : what being discussed in this article is cross-pollination, selection of varieties to produce certain traits, and ,yes, it is basically “old fashioned”.

      That is , we’re NOT talking about modifying genes by crudely “shooting” genetic material from an entirely different, non-plant organism into the nucleus of a corn cell. THAT is called making a “genetically modified organism”, or “GMO”and is what is usually meant by “genetic engineering”. This procedure is definitely NOT “traditional” and creates numerous, not well-tested , and unpredictable unintended results…though to hear Monsanto talk, it’s all totally predictable and completely harmless.

  • Meg Berlin

    The former’s remarks about genetic engineering is one of those things people make a lot mistakes about. Farmers have been tinkering with seed genetics and hybridization for thousands of years. One variety is more cold resistant but lacks flavor, another variety tastes great but is less cold hardy = interbreed the two and you have a HYBRID. Genetic engineering looks very different from farmer hybridization. It can only happen in a lab for one thing and the genes of a GE plant have nothing to do with another plants optimum ‘offerings’.
    There is a sea of differences between the two types.

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