What We Are Doing
December 10, 2010
In 1988 Michael Fields Agricultural Institute began to breed, test, and produce new kinds of corn to provide an alternative to mega-business corn. We did this in response to a request from farmers for better quality corn. Farmers knew that gains in yield and other agronomic characteristics had come at the expense of nutritional value. But as the needs and demands for an alternative source of corn grew we began to realize that addressing this problem will take a team effort with multiple partners and grass-roots support. With help of a Federal Appropriation (sponsored by Senator Herb Kohl and Senator Tom Harkin) we started a partnership involving Practical Farmers of Iowa, our breeding program and breeding programs at USDA. Our breeding programs have developed well-adapted inbreds and populations with both yield and unique quality traits that might enhance both market and feeding value. The farmers and staff of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), and our advisory council are helping to connect breeders, farmers, and smaller seed companies.
Prime objectives of the MFAI program are:
- Developing high yielding maize with higher protein quality;
- Enhanced ability of maize inbreds to compete with weeds; and
- Enhanced nitrogen efficiency under conditions where soil-N is not readily available.
- Selection is for vigorous inbreds grown only under organic conditions, complete with weeds.
Recently we have received a grant from the USDA-NIFA-OREI program to breed corn for organic farmers. This project is a team effort between USDA, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Cornell University, Ohio State University, New Mexico State University, and our Institution. Funding from the project is allowing us to have an organic winter nursery in Puerto Rico, to screen corn for stress, insect, and disease resistance, and to expand our educational and networking effort.
We have explored several different approaches to developing corn, including crosses between public and private (or another public) inbreds (single crosses), topcrosses between open-pollinated populations and inbreds, crosses between different populations (varietal hybrids), and open pollinated or synthetic varieties. It is easier to produce seed corn of some of these alternatives under organic conditions where weeds compete fiercely with inbreds. However, seed companies have indicated to us that they would prefer to continue to make single cross hybrids because the hybrids are more uniform. Therefore we are focusing our efforts on breeding inbreds that are extremely robust and show little inbreeding depression. These inbreds are large like open pollinated plants and they compete relatively well with weeds.
Since 2003 we have grown corn in trials in numerous organic and chemical farms in Iowa and Wisconsin and we had field days.