As part of its spring 2014 grants cycle, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) provided a research grant of $9,490 to farmer and plant breeder Jonathan Spero of Lupine Knoll Farm in Southern Oregon to conduct research into developing new strains of corn that are sweeter than other varieties currently available. Spero has been farming organically in the Applegate Valley since the 1970s, has been a certified organic grower since 2001, and has worked in developing new sweet corn cultivars beginning in 2002.
Upon receiving the grant he commented, “OFRF is playing an important role in helping to create much-needed vegetable varieties, and providing information on growing methods that help today's organic farmers provide quality, reasonably priced foods to consumers who care about what they eat.”
The project, titled Creating Open Pollinated, Sugary Enhanced Sweet Corn Varieties—Year 4, first received funding from OFRF in 2010. This is one of five research grants approved by the OFRF board of directors this spring. Since its inception in 1990, OFRF has granted over $3,000,000 in research funding to organic farmers and researchers to help improve growing methods and practices on organic farms.
OFRF Executive Director Brise Tencer says this is just the kind of grant OFRF exists to fund. “We are excited to offer this research grant to Jonathan Spero. This project will benefit thousands of organic farmers by developing new organic sweet corn varieties. So often corn has been bred for heavy chemical fertilizer use. This time it is being bred with organic farmers' needs in mind and that benefits farmers and consumers alike."
A number of knowledgeable plant breeders provided guidance for Spero's work. They include plant breeder/geneticist Dr. Carol Deppe of Corvallis, Oregon, Dr. James R. Myers at Oregon State University (OSU) and Dr. John A. Juvik, Professor of Plant Genetics at the University of Illinois.
Corn in the supermarket has gotten sweeter over the years as breeders have bred plants to produce sweeter kernels. These newer varieties were not bred to be grown in the conditions on organic farms. They were selected to rely on fungicides and pesticides, and to effectively utilize soluble synthetic fertilizers in large quantities. What’s more, these corn varieties are hybrids, and the seed will not breed true. By contrast, open pollinated corn, like that being developed by Spero, can be saved and planted again. Spero is also breeding his corn to be sweeter than most organic varieties currently on the market.
A primary objective of Spero’s research is to release open pollinated corn lines that are acceptable to organic corn growers. The researcher is working to establish two open pollinated (op), sugary enhanced (se), sweet corn varieties (Top Hat and Tuxana). He will also create a video "Making Corn Sweeter" outlining the three selection processes used. The video is available on line from eOrganic here.