Putting the “Sweet” in Organic Sweet Corn!

Karen Adler's picture

      What could be better than that burst of sugary goodness as you crunch into the first ear of summer corn? One reason we look forward to this is that corn has actually gotten sweeter over the years thanks to the hard work of plant breeders. There is a downside, however. These newer varieties, featuring the flavor we have come to expect, were not developed for conditions on organic farms, as they are reliant on fungicides and pesticides, and utilize soluble synthetic fertilizers in large quantities.

     In addition, very little sweet corn grown commercially today is open pollinated (op). This means that organic farmers who wish to save their own seed have few, if any, good choices of varieties to grow.                   

         Our best sources of organic-friendly agronomic traits are the old varieties which were developed before chemical pesticides and fertilizers were available. But there has been little breeding to improve open pollinated corn for quite some time, and as a result, these varieties have not kept up in sweetness or in productivity.

     Now in his fourth year of an OFRF/Seed Matters-funded grant, farmer and plant breeder Jonathan Spero, of Lupine Knoll Farm, in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon, has set out to change all that. He believes that organic sweet corn growers (and eaters) deserve better choices, and is working to develop and release open pollinated corn lines that are sweet and well-adapted for organic corn growers. Spero, who has been farming organically since the 1970s and has been a certified organic grower since 2001, started to develop new sweet corn cultivars in 2002.

     He is currently working to establish two open pollinated (op), sugary enhanced (se), sweet corn varieties, Top Hat and Tuxana, which he has been developing for several years. The Top Hat and Tuxana seed that is being planted this season will be evaluated, and may be available at the end of 2014. Breeding in two other lines, Tux Yellow and Tux Multi (a multi-colored variety) began in 2013, and will require more time for release.

      Organic Farming Research Foundation has funded this project, in partnership with Seed Matters, titled Create open pollinated, sugary enhanced sweet corn varieties through our research grants program since the fall of 2010; Spero recently received $9,490 in OFRF’s spring 2014 grant cycle, making a total of $34,830 that he has received from OFRF for this research. A number of knowledgeable plant breeders provide guidance for Spero's work, including plant breeder/geneticist Dr. Carol Deppe of Corvallis, Oregon, Dr. James R. Myers at Oregon State University, and Dr. John A. Juvik, Professor of Plant Genetics at the University of Illinois.   

     Jonathan Spero says, “This is on-farm corn improvement, and is within the capabilities of gardeners and farmers anywhere corn can be grown.” In addition to providing a full report at the completion of this research project, which will include details of the work, and useful tools and resources for farmers, he will also create a video, “Making Corn Sweeter.” Both will be available on the OFRF website. Spero explains that one of his techniques, ear-to-row selection, is described in agricultural text books. “The process is not complicated, but I have not located any how-to videos designed for the farmer or gardener,” he says. “My planned contribution is to show how anyone can make real improvements in corn or in any open pollinated vegetable variety using this method.”

In the meantime, we’re looking forward to that first crunch of sweet Top Hat corn next year.

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Watch Jonathan Spero’s presentation on his innovative sweet corn research at the 7th Annual Organic Seed Growers Conference in January 2014.

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