NMSU develops improved organic corn varieties
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.