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Sustainable Agriculture

Growing Own Seed Cuts Farmer Costs, Opens New Markets

Developing high-performing varieties of hybrid corn for the less productive agricultural zones of the northeastern United States, characterized by cool, wet summers and a short growing season, poses challenges for plant breeders. But Cornell University researchers investigating open-pollinated (OP) varieties of corn hope to enable Northeast farmers to grow and select seed for their environment and market conditions.

“Producing open-pollinated corn not only keeps control over the seed supply close to the grassroots, but also tailors varieties to local environments, which is essential to more sustainable production systems,” said Margaret Smith, co-project leader.

By planting OP corn in areas with lower yield potential, farmers can decrease costs by growing and saving their own seed. “Since the cost of hybrid seed is the same whether you harvest 150 or 100 bushels per acre, it represents a much larger proportion of total costs for farmers in marginal areas than it does in the Corn Belt,” said Jane Mt. Pleasant, co-project leader. Moreover, “reduced yields from OP corn may be more than offset by the reduced cost of the seed.”

Some OP varieties proved competitive with conventional hybrid varieties grown in control plots, especially for silage. However, most OP varieties produce lower grain yields than the hybrids, and may tip over in the field, hampering harvest. After two years of trials, the researchers found that the best OP grain yields were about 75 to 80 percent that of commercial hybrids.

Growers looking for niche market opportunities could raise multi-colored OP seed. Moreover, OP corn is attractive to organic growers, who must certify that their seed does not contain genetically engineered material.

The researchers will publish information about promising OP varieties and seed sources in a catalog targeted at small dairy farmers, seed producers, and Native American growers who want to preserve traditional varieties.

Another Northeast SARE project helps farmers integrate seed production and crop improvement into their farming systems. “Seeds grown by New England organic or sustainable farmers can thrive without reliance on chemicals,” said Eli Kaufman, co-coordinator of the nonprofit Restoring Our Seed. “Season by season, farmers are learning how to select for exactly what we want: superior flavor, early maturity, resistance to local pests and disease, and reliability in our cool climate.”

The team of Extension educators, farmers, seed-savers, and breeders from Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire are conducting field days on seed selecting for local adaptability and disease resistance; hosting workshops on harvesting and cleaning; and building local networks with farmers, chefs, and seed companies to encourage direct marketing of farm-bred varieties and seed. The project team is also working to improve heirloom tomatoes, preserve Native American and rare vegetable varieties, and develop a disease-resistant cucumber that makes a tasty pickle.


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