Corn Breeding: Another Perspective
Originally published in BIODYNAMICS 233, January/February, 2001
I found Walter Goldstein’s article on corn breeding (in BIODYNAMICS 232) at Michael Fields Institute to be a model of vision, dedication and precision. This is a field of endeavor that for much too long has gone in the direction of removing seed saving from farmers’ hands, making them dependent on things entirely beyond their control. I have the utmost respect for Walter, and this is yet another instance that justifies my estimation.
I say this because I don’t want folks to think I’m critical in presenting a different perspective on corn breeding. Walter is breeding corns for large farmers, while what I’m breeding is for small CSA market gardeners. Not only are our aims quite different, but so are the resources at our disposal. Of course, as a market gardener with cows, chickens and sometimes pigs, I am working with corn not only for market but for feed. My sweet corn, popcorn and cornmeal corns primarily are for humans, but the seconds as well as some of the stalks go to the animals, providing a significant portion of their diet. Moreover, the stalks are a major food source for earthworms, and I grow corn as a soil improvement crop. More on that later.
Because my location is in the mountains of North Georgia, I enjoy a longer, warmer season than at Michael Fields. But I also have the shortest season in Georgia, spanning a mere five frost-free months. The coldest temperature I’ve recorded here is -22 degrees F, which means I have a rather intermediate situation. Given these conditions, I can develop varieties with a wide range of characteristics that can be used by CSA and market gardeners throughout the continent as a genetic base from which to select strains uniquely suited to their individual farms. In short, I breed for diversity. I ought to mention a few things about my growing practices. Here in Georgia we have warm temperatures and plenty of moisture so our soils digest rapidly and require a lot of replenishment. In my market garden I use a forty inch wide spading machine to produce beds while leaving a thirty-five inch wide path between them that the tractor rides on. These walking/driving strips are kept in permanent grass and clover cover. By mowing them in the growing season I provide a lot of earthworm fodder while the corn or other vegetables are young. The clippings get digested in place as long as earthworm populations are high. So the earthworms have a balanced diet I interplant soybeans down the middles between the corn rows. Since I plant the large seeded Vinton 81S which make a great edible green soybean that sells for high prices, where the beans flourish I can pick a money crop. The beans never compete with the corn and if anything enhance its growth while suppressing weeds. And since I’m keeping my earthworm populations high in summer with the lawnmower clippings, when I mow and spade in my corn stalks there are plenty of earthworms to ensure their digestion. This allows me to plant my fall/winter spinach/garlic crop behind my early sweet corns without any compost, just tillage.
The application of biodynamic preparations makes a huge difference in how my corn grows. I’m planting with a Cole “no-till” planters using the smallest corn plates I’ve got on everything except the popcorn. However, the corns I’m working with, even the flint cornmeals, are small seeded so I get an average distribution in the row of about six or seven corn plants in two feet of row. For conventional methods that may be too much, though it is what my equipment does. I compensate somewhat by wider row spacing and my plant population per acre is probably in the same range as Walter’s.
I’ve been getting very good results without using any fertilizers, because with the preparation 500 I’ve got a good soil food web, and with the 501 I take a quantum leap in photosynthesis. This is standard biodynamic practice, but I add to it with the use of horn clay. Horn clay stimulates transport within the stem – and corn has a killer stalk. The abundant sugars created in the leaf go to the roots and are exuded into the soil feeding the mycorhyzae, azotobacters, and so forth.
These in turn provide the plants with the best possible nutrition. This is especially true for nitrogen. If I put my nitrogen on as compost, some of this oxidizes into nitrates or reduces into ammonia before the corn soaks it up, rendering the corn somewhat salty and watery, though not as much so as with chemical fertilizer. Salts and water in the corn protoplasm makes field corn hard to dry down and encourages insect damage. However, if the corn as it grows feeds sugars to the microorganisms that fix nitrogen, the corn gets its nitrogen as amino acids which it turns directly into protein. Just as the corn matures it is getting abundant amino acids. Then I get corn of the highest quality while getting high yields. Reincorporating my crop residues allows earthworms to do the composting without me hauling anything to or from my barnyard.
As a market gardener with limited land and relatively unpredictable help, my resources, especially labor, are thin, as they are with many market gardeners. If things are to get done they must involve inspiration, or – for lack of a better word – fun. For me it is not great fun to conduct the sorts of patient, methodical assessment of individual plants as at Michael Fields, even though I greatly admire Walter’s work. Nevertheless, nature points out the successful individuals in any given corn population, and I watch for these. When evaluating a promising line of breeding, flavor is my best assessment. As chemical analysis goes, flavor is a very integrated and sophisticated method. My orange flint, which has fourteen years of breeding history, makes the best tasting cornmeal of any I know. A lab analysis would be interesting, but its rich, nutty flavor alone lets you know it is high protein.
Corn breeding is particularly interesting. On any given ear the genetic contribution from the mother plant is the same for every kernel. It is this genetic simplicity that allowed Barbara McClintock to win a Nobel Prize in 1987 for proving corn mutated every generation. For open-pollinated corn this means saving a minimum of two hundred ears to ensure a stable, reliable breed. Currently I only fulfill this requirement with my orange flint cornmeal, which I’ve bred for fourteen years. All my other corns are breeding experiments that I don’t guarantee as stable. However, I’m growing two kinds of sweet corn, one early and one late; three flint cornmeals, one multicolored hominy dent, and three popcorns. I’m particularly interested in developing a popcorn that is as robust as an ordinary tall flint while still having the small ultra-dense kernels that pop well.
I think, however, that a lot more attention should be paid to Barbara McClintock’s discovery that corn mutates with every generation. To be sure, it doesn’t turn into tomatoes. It stays pretty much the same kind of corn over the generations, but it does mutate. Every time. This is another case where what Dr. Steiner said in 1924 has proven true:
We usually think of the seed, from which the embryo develops, as having an extremely complicated molecular structure, and we set great store in being able to understand it in all its complexity. We imagine molecules as having certain definite structures, simpler in the simple ones and getting ever more complicated until we come to the incredibly complicated structure of a protein molecule. We stand there in wonder and astonishment in front of what we imagine to be the complex structure of the seed’s protein. We’re sure it has to be terribly complicated, because, after all, a new organism has to grow out of it. We assume that a whole new complicated organism is already inherent in the plant embryo in the seed, and that therefore this microscopic or submicroscopic substance must also be incredibly complicated in its structure. To a certain extent this is true at first. When earthly protein is being built up, the molecular structure is indeed raised to the highest degree of complexity. But a new organism could never, never develop out of this complicated structure. That is not how a new organism comes about. 1
Steiner goes on to describe how the new plant arises out of the influences of the whole surrounding universe, and the parent plant only endows it with a tendency, “. . . through its affinity for a particular cosmic setting, to bring the seed into relationship with the forces from the proper directions, so that what emerges from a dandelion is a dandelion and not a barberry.” This is something Luther Burbank surely must have known and used to advantage many times in bringing new varieties into being.
What I’m trying to do is breed good starting material for market gardeners who save their own seed. Maybe I can save them ten or fifteen years by supplying a good genetically diverse sweet corn, popcorn or cornmeal corn that responds well to the biodynamic preparations (including horn clay) and has such diverse characteristics that market gardeners from Mexico to Canada can then develop their own breeds uniquely adapted to their locales.
Keeping in mind that each new generation arises out of the influences of the whole surrounding universe, and that the forces of the periphery influence the genetics more so than the other way around, I hope market gardeners will look to saving their own seed – not just to save money but to develop breeds adapted to their local conditions. When one thinks of all the heirloom varieties that are being lost right and left one has to wonder where they came from in the first place. It makes sense that they came from folks saving their own seeds on a small scale and conserving beneficial mutations when they arose.
1) Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture: Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, trans. Gardner and Creeger (Kimberton: Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 1993), 34-35.
Hugh Lovel, author of the book A Biodynamic Farm, is a biodynamic farmer, teacher, scientist and inventor