June 5, 2020
Every year, every season, brings its challenges. This year has been like no other; shuffling seeds back and forth to my home office during a pandemic as I helplessly watched my home state become the epicenter in the U.S., followed by being propelled into grief and mourning as a far more dangerous virus, systemic racism, reared its ugly head and killed yet another innocent victim – George Floyd. Now here I am, trying to write an article about corn, wishing that centuries ago, Indigenous peoples would not have taught those European colonizers how to grow corn and that maybe we would all be in a different space. But here we are. The only way to move is forward. Plant seeds of anti-racism and peace. For growers, seeds must be planted – some years they are watered by our tears.
After years of uncooperative spring weather, we have surprisingly been able to get fields prepped and seeds planted. Our corn research plots have been planted and are up, no longer a sleeping seed but now a living plant. We grow corn, a plant that was developed and cultivated by Indigenous peoples, on stolen land from Indigenous nations. Corn is ubiquitous in contemporary United States and I prefer to hope its presence speaks to the tenacity of Indigenous peoples. I am conscious, careful, and purposely do not use any varieties that have been known to have a connection to ceremony, yet I do not know if I am doing enough, as all corn varieties are descendants of corn that has been developed and cultivated by Indigenous people.
Our longstanding breeding goals are: increased nutritional value and gametophytic incompatibility. The nutritional value of our food has always been a concern for us; we have been selecting for higher nutritional value along with sound agronomic traits. Another issue of concern for us and most organic corn growers is GMO (genetically modified organism, also referred to as GE, genetically engineered) contamination. The base of this problem is the wind carries corn pollen from conventional growers into organic corn fields. When the organic grower brings their crop to the grain elevator, if the crop is contaminated with GMOs (not allowed in organic production) and it gets rejected, then the organic farmer may be forced to sell the corn at conventional prices. The demand for organic corn in the U.S. is significant and when organic corn is rejected, the demand does not simply disappear, but rather organic imports rise. When imports rise the effect can be devastating for U.S. grain producers. Here at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute along with our partners at Iowa State, we are breeding corn that rejects GMO pollen (and other types of corn pollen as well); this is something we call gametophytic incompatibility.
We also have a yield trial planted. The purpose of this trial will be an evaluation of combining ability. These are topcrosses made from our inbred lines with a tester. Lines that have good performance will be advanced to tests involving more testers.
Corn is a beautiful plant. It is efficient at harvesting rain and dew, transferring moisture from leaf to leaf along the stalk and directing water exactly to its roots. Growing many varieties show many differences in tassels, silks, and grain. When corn flowers, the pollen has the appearance of glitter in the sun.
Moving forward, being open to learning, sharing, creating space and taking action to ensure that we are planting seeds of anti-racism and peace.