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FALL 2010
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Made@CALS

Organic Corn Designed Especially for New York

By Stacey Shackford

Organic Corn
Provided
Margaret Smith (left) assesses corn plants.

One segment of the New York dairy industry is actually growing: organic.

To produce organic milk, however, the cows must be fed crops that also have been grown organically. Until now, the only organic corn seed available has been developed for farmers in the Midwest, where the soil and climate is much more forgiving than in the Northeast.

Margaret Smith ’78, PhD ’82, professor of plant breeding and associate director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, has developed two new organic corn hybrids specifically designed with the New York growing season in mind—a first for the area.

Their names may be unexciting, but the possibilities represented by M1821 and D2901 certainly are exciting for organic crop producers and dairy farmers.

Crops grown from the first seed, a modified single cross produced from two closely related parents crossed to an unrelated parent, mature in just 82 days, grow relatively uniformly in the field, and have a slightly higher yield potential.

The second seed produces crops in about 90 days. Because it is produced by crossing two hybrids involving four unrelated parents, it is vigorous and easy to grow. It also seems to be resistant to many diseases and shades the ground early. This is especially important to organic seed producers, who have a harder time controlling weeds because they don’t use chemical herbicides.

It can also be produced cheaper, thanks in part to bigger seed ears.

“That’s why I think we might really have a role to play and particularly in a market like New York, where corn yields are not as high as elsewhere, and we struggle with soil conditions, shorter season, and pest pressures,” Smith says. “I think anything we can do to help reduce input costs for farmers is helpful.”

The benefits of the new breeds might eventually extend beyond the Northeast. The seeds are being tested on other farms across the country, and Smith says there is potential for wide-scale marketing.

Their value goes well beyond their price and regional adaptation, according to Mary-Howell Martens, MS ’82, who has been selling the seeds at Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan since the 2009 season.

In an industry where biotechnology is now the norm, genetic diversity has become limited. By bucking against this trend, Smith and her team are ensuring organic farmers still have some selection.

“This is going to be very important as new diseases come along, or climate conditions change,” Martens adds.

Mary-Howell Martens and husband, Klaas, produce and process the seeds on their 1,400-acre organic farm and feed facility. Initial sales were sluggish as they tried to convince farmers that the new hybrids are worth a try, but she said the crops have been performing well under organic management conditions.

“The quality of these seeds is phenomenal, equal to or better than what comes out of the big seed companies,” Mary-Howell Martens adds.

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