The United States Department of Agriculture announced that it will invest nearly $2 million toward a University of Illinois project that will allow farmers, researchers, and consumers to participate in breeding corn optimized for organic production. Farmers will help test maize germplasm developed at U of I and the Mandaamin Institute in Wisconsin, and consumers will give their opinions on the quality of the grain and products made with each line of organic corn.
“The project is unique because it integrates all the components of the food chain, from the field to table, connecting researchers, producers, and consumers,” said Carmen Ugarte, research specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I, and the lead investigator on the project. “Traditionally, farmers stop worrying about what happens to their corn after it is delivered to the grain elevator. But we’re trying to breed with the end product in mind, and we are keen to connect producers and consumers.”
Martin Bohn, corn breeder and geneticist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and co-principal investigator, notes this project will provide the scientific insights needed to design cutting-edge breeding strategies for the development of cultivars wanted in the organic market.
“To be successful, each breeding program needs well-defined objectives, and in the organic marketplace, it isn’t only about yield. Processing and nutritional quality are of great importance for the consumer, and the farmer needs cultivars that compete well with weeds, are resistant to pests and diseases, and tolerate stresses like drought, heat, and low nutrient availability,” Bohn said.
Bill Davison, a U of I Extension educator and co-investigator on the project, says that growers currently do not have many choices in the marketplace when it comes to organically produced corn. But, he says, some top-performing genetic lines have been tested at U of I. These need to be evaluated across a variety of conditions to make further improvements, and that’s where participating farmers come in.
The project will develop a participatory testing network with farmers from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and New York.
“At each location, our researchers will work with farmers to establish variety trials to assess the agronomic performance of elite corn hybrids developed at U of I and the Mandaamin Institute, with co-investigator Walter Goldstein,” Ugarte said.
The researchers will also evaluate the influence of soil health on yield and grain quality and processing characteristics. “This will let us test theories about the ties between soil and crop health,” said Michelle Wander, co-principal investigator and soil scientist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I.
All materials tested under field conditions will also be evaluated for quality and performance of the end products. Corn will be processed into several different types of food products, such as corn bread or tortilla chips, at the Pilot Processing Plant on the U of I campus and then tested by consumers and researchers. Co-investigator Juan Andrade from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I will evaluate nutrient content and things like volatile aromatic compounds that influence our sensory experience of food.
Finally, co-investigator Bryan Endres, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at U of I, Wander, and others will work with private breeders and processors and an advisory board consisting of industry leaders to identify and promote organizational structures and legal agreements that support participatory breeding networks to improve the organic seed supply. Materials produced by the effort will be made available through eOrganic, eXtensions’ organic community of practice.