Richard Pratt is standing in a field at New Mexico State University's Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center south of Las Cruces talking about his corn research. Two things are worth mentioning here. One is that there's not a cornstalk in sight. The other is that Pratt, who recently finished up his first year as head of the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, has time for research.
The absence of corn is easy to explain. It's February in southern New Mexico and the corn has all been harvested. The particular plot Pratt is standing in is greening up with hairy vetch, a winter cover crop being rotated in as part of that field's three-year transition from traditional agriculture to certified organic status.
Finding time for the research, as busy as Pratt is with administrative responsibilities, is not easy but it is essential. He brought a large grant with him when he moved to NMSU from Ohio State University and is committed to expanding the project in his new Western environment.
Pratt's research at Leyendecker and other NMSU agricultural science centers is part of a larger project titled "Strengthening public corn breeding to ensure organic farmers' access to elite cultivars." The organic corn breeding project involves a half-dozen researchers in several states and Puerto Rico. The team is evaluating existing varieties of organic corn for their viability in varied climates and developing new and better varieties through traditional breeding practices.
Pratt and colleagues are not doing their organic corn trials for a large seed company. Such companies currently have little interest in funding development of specialty crops like organic corn, according to Pratt; they tend to focus their investment on developing varieties that will appeal to very large numbers of producers.
This project is funded by a USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative grant. Pratt's share of the grant is approximately $450,000 for the four-year project, which is slated to end in 2014.
Organic corn is typically produced for human consumption and to feed to organically raised poultry. Pratt says organic corn producers are especially interested in varieties with high nutritional value and exceptional taste, and perhaps "a harder kernel texture, to make a good corn meal or a good polenta or some really good blue corn tortillas."
In spite of the growing demand from health- and ecology-conscious individuals for organic products, organic corn still accounts for only a small share of the market. Non-organic corn, in addition to being consumed by humans, goes to feed livestock and produce ethanol, uses that emphasize high yield over other traits in today's approach to large-scale production agriculture.
Pratt and his colleagues are concerned about the long-range risks inherent in the modern tendency to develop small numbers of high-yielding varieties of corn and other crops.
"One of the outcomes of many decades of intensive corn breeding is really to narrow the gene base, which creates what we call 'genetic bottle-necks,'" he said. "The result of that can be genetic vulnerability. So we feel that using very diverse germplasm is an important feature of our [organic corn breeding] program."
"Germplasm" is a scientific term for genetic material and, in the case of corn breeding, essentially refers to seed kernels.
Organic breeding practices do not include gene splicing and other lab-based approaches that result in "genetically modified organisms." Instead, varieties are crossed by the careful pollination of mature plants using pollen derived from plants of other varieties.
This project involves organic corn from Latin America, the Caribbean and an international research center in West Africa, as well as from U.S. sources. Having corn from such varied sources "allows us to have disease-resistant characteristics, grain quality characteristics, just basically an example of biodiversity," Pratt said. "We feel that's very important."
Pratt said the project is on a short timeline, by typical plant breeding standards.
"We want to have superior cultivars, or varieties, available for organic producers a few years from now," he said. "So it's a two-generation-a-year program and it is also a very cooperative program, with other universities and independent breeders, and also the USDA Agricultural Research Service."
In addition to the corn he grew at Leyendecker this year, Pratt had 50 varieties of organic corn in test plots at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington. The research involves tracking each variety's average yield, moisture content, bushel weight, plant and ear height, number of plants per acre, and days to plant maturity. Tracking these factors will help researchers decide which varieties to cross with each other, as they work to develop new cultivars that meet growers' needs and are better suited to particular growing environments.
For the nationwide niche market for blue corn, a heritage crop for New Mexicans, Pratt has been working with two varieties at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas: "Ohio Blue," developed at Ohio State University while he was there, and a variety dubbed "Los Lunas Blue," which originated at the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.
Project goals are much broader than making a number of tested cultivars available to growers in a few years. The researchers hope to develop "a sustainable corn breeding effort" that will continue beyond the timeframe of this particular grant. Part of that involves building a large network of like-minded organic farmers, seed companies and buyers to pool their efforts in advancing organic corn production. Through this project and the U.S. Testing Network, related research is being conducted in about 30 sites in 20 states.
Making the research methods and results widely available is another goal of this project, and one that is solidly in the tradition of land-grant universities like NMSU.
Pratt recently returned from the project's winter nursery in Puerto Rico where he and colleagues were putting in nine-hour days tending their corn plants. "This year we are each crossing to each other's most promising female parent for hybrid production," he said. "We help each other in the nursery and the experience of working together also develops a sense of commitment to the overall project."