Alfred Reed Bishop and Doris William Butler

The picture above is the very tap root of Bishop's Homegrown/Face Of The Earth Seed. My grandparents shortly after moving to Pekin Indiana from Greensburg KY in 1947 where they purchased the farm that is now Bishop's Homegrown. This picture was taken in Pekin in front of the old co-op next to the old railroad depot, neither of which exist today.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Breeding Priority Number 1: corn

There is no doubt that American industry has an unhealthy obsession with corn, given all the transnational corporations interests in multitudes of monocroping, gene patenting, and modification. That said, it's not the corn in itself that is unhealthy, only the way it is grown in deficient ground further raping the soil of vital nutrition, selected only for production not human sustenance, and modified via lab rats working within the boundaries of a misunderstanding of the most basic of premises in genetics.

Corn is survival food, even in it's most basic forms, the smallest of corn ears are still a great improvement in terms of grain quantity and yield over any and all of the old world crops. The corn genome on it's own is an amazing thing, nearly twice the size of the human genome and incredibly diverse, but so few now days are "playing" with the genes that will give rise to new survival food crops derived from those genes; digestibility, protein content, duality of use, vitamin and amino acid content. This is why corn has become my primary interest in breeding, with brassicas and perennial crops in a close second place.

I thought I'd take a second to make a few notes about some of the corn breeding work and germplasm we hope to persue in the coming couple years.

Waxy corn is a particularly interesting variation on corn, discovered in Asia and used in modern times mostly as an industrial additive, it is an excellent source of 100% Amylopectin starch, the same starch found in Tapioca. There is some evidence that this corn was selected in China long before the arrival of Columbus in the new world, lending even more credence to the now accepted fact that the Chinese were making the trip to the new world long before the previously accepted timeline. "Glutinous" or "Waxy" starches have been selected in many food crops throughout China for their "sticky" properties for centuries, glutinous rice is probably the most well known.

Waxy corns make much more efficient feed for animals and have a multitude of culinary uses, most of the waxy varieties I have seen give the appearance of parching or flour corns. Their productivity is reduced 5-10% less of modern dent corns, but the feed efficiency more than makes up for this.

I had been looking for a source for waxy germplasm to run some breeding tests for a number of years, though there were many sources in Asia, most of them required a bank draft and phytosanitary certificate to order, and being short on time and money, as well as trusting of a bank draft in Asia I chose for a long time not to order any of this valuable germplasm. Recently however my good friend Castenea over at Homegrown Goodness ordered a few pounds of three separate varieties, two OP types and one hybrid and sent them to me. A most amazing gift indeed and next year they will be grown and evaluated for on farm human and animal feed. I can't thank Castanea enough for this gift. I was also sent a couple pounds of a 90 day yellow dent from the same source. All four of the corns are 90 days to maturity so dancing around cross pollination issues should be fun, fortunately I have neighboring farms which I can cowbird to in exchange for bushoging and clearing the land.

From the research I have conducted thus far it is apparently practical and possible to maintain a Su1 or Se corn that also contains the WX trait. The possiblities of new Astronomy Domine X Waxy germplasm based cultivars are nearly endless.

I've also been discussing corn varieties with my good friends Stuart Pollack as well as Tom Kleffman (Darwinslair). Tom has an intense interest in some of the old Oscar H. Will varieties as well as many other short season corns and has grown several interesting accessions out this year, including a wonderful grow out of Bear Island and Painted Mountain, two corns I gave a go this year but unfortunately lost to raccoons due to the short height of the ears. His enthusiasm for old corn varieties got me interested in tracking down a few more for myself and today I came across and absolute treasure trove of corn varieties, including many old Oscar H. Will varieties, these varieties may be marginal in my Southern Indiana climate, but I think that there are genes in some of these varieties that I might find of use in the near future.

Stuart runs a small but wonderful seed company where he produces selected seed of varieties he has found that do well in his garden. I consider Stuart a part of the now growing bio-regional seed movement, small seed companies catering specifically to the bio-region which they inhabit, something I hope to see expand and become a "web" of useful local varieties and locally adapted strains of said varieties. This year I grew out a crop of seed of Astronomy Domine and Long Island seed (small) to sell as my first commercial crop to Stuart. Knowing that I would just invest the money back into seed I decided instead to save him some money and myself some time and facilitate a seed for seed trade, requesting a shipment from high mowing seed of Roy's Calais flint corn.

Roy's Calais, is a supposed Abanaki tribe heirloom which survived the year without a summer and probably by extension saved many human lives in that terrible year. A small flint corn at 90 days to maturity it is made up of red, yellow, and sometimes orange ears of flint corn. For as long as I can remember here locally southern dents have been the preferred field corns and information regarding the agronomics of the local native American populations is scarce, but I have always had a theory that 200 years ago this would have been quite a different case, with flint corn predominating, given the storage of ears in the ground/mold issues, the moist climate and insect damage issues, it only makes sense to me that more than likely the local natives chose instead to grow flints. The sheer storability and hardness of flint corns has recently attracted my attention to them over the dent corn lines, why fight with insects and molds should we find our self in a survival situation by maintaining those soft dent genes when we instead can produce a grain that can be stored easily in a moist, bug infested climate? Roy's Calais fits the survival bill in many ways and there is still a great deal of diversity within the crop giving us ideal opportunity for making selections from an existing cultivar. Stuart also mentioned Kuscik corn, a corn apparently based on the genetics of Roy's Calais and Wapsie Valley and another of the many we will grow out and evaluate next season.

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