Freezing rain and sleet clattered on our skylights and red and blue flames licked hungrily at the oak and ash chunks in the wood stove. This cold winter night seemed like an odd time for me to have visions of a steaming ear of sweet corn all slathered with butter. But I was reading about a new sweet corn variety announced recently by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And it occurred to me that could be seen as a gift in this season of giving, particularly for our area of the state.
The new variety, called “Who Gets Kissed,” is the first in a series of organic, open-pollinated sweet corns being developed in a joint project by researchers at UW and the Organic Seed Alliance, according to the UW.
The new variety has the desirable traits commonly found in hybrid seeds, but was developed for organic growers who appreciate a more diverse, open-pollinated sweet corn, the news release said.
Southwest Wisconsin, with its growing farm-to-school and farm-to-table enterprises, many of them organic, is the main reason why Wisconsin is second in the nation in the number of organic farms.
The variety is the product of some seven years of breeding after the OSA put a farmer interested in adapting a variety to his particular soil conditions in touch with Bill Tracy, professor and chair of UW’s Department of Agronomy.
In a telephone interview this week, Tracy said the new variety would allow farmers to save and select seed to adapt the variety to their own conditions – a particular advantage for organic farmers.
The name of the variety is a reference to a game played at corn husking bees in the days long ago when corn was more genetically diverse, according to the news release. “When a person found an ear with all red kernels, known as a ‘pokeberry ear,’ they could choose one person among the group to kiss.”
Tracy, who has been at the UW for 30 years, 10 as agronomy chair, said the seed would be available through High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont, a company chosen for its capacity to supply the market. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing, said the variety was “an example of the amazing results that can be achieved in an open-pollinated and collaborative breeding, where the consumer, farmer, breeder, seed grower and all other stakeholders are involved.”
As I read about the new variety, I also had in mind the approaching state budget debates when the university will be challenged again to maintain its role in the state’s economy that dates back to the long-ago time of corn husking bees.
Years ago when I was a graduate student at UW, I rescued several bound records of the UW Farmers Institutes from a discard pile at Steenbock Library. I still have a few of these “Hand Books of Agriculture” which can serve as a benchmark for the Wisconsin Idea –the principle that the university should serve the needs and well being of all the citizens of the state.
For example, O.S. Sisson of West Salem contributed a paper (page 215 of the 1890 edition) on corn culture, advising the need for rotating clover with corn to maintain the fertility of the soil. Sisson told farmers how they could raise the average of 26 1/2 bushels of corn to the acre. Nearly 125 years later, (years of collaboration by the university with the state’s farmers, such as that demonstrated in the new sweet corn variety), Grant County farmer Eugene Steiger and his son, Paul, topped all Wisconsin farmers with 278.9 bushels per acre in 2012.
Organic sweet corn, of course, is only a small piece of the state’s agricultural economic pie, but it represents how diverse the university needs to be to serve all the people of the state.
We might look at the product of the university’s research and outreach as a gift to the economy. We can more reasonably see it as a return on investment, an investment that we need to maintain to meet the challenges of the future.