This project had three main objectives:
? Genetic development
? Farming procedures
The genetic development of this sustainable new crop will be the most significant part of this project for the western region and for matching parts of the world. Western SARE has helped us on a fairly large scale to give the western region a new crop that will potentially benefit people for centuries.
Yes, the participating farmers all benefited. But, the long-term gift of the genetics will be the enduring benefit of this work.
The Native Peoples and Homesteaders of our Rocky Mountain region grew thousands of localized strains of corn as their primary grain and also livestock food. Some of those strains had ancestry in the region for 8,000 years. They were adapted to our arid western growing conditions, the very low nitrogen content in our alkali soil, the short seasons, the cold nights and the freezes of our high elevation desert mountains. They are the most stress-hardy corns in the world. Most of those lines had gone extinct.
Beginning in my young manhood, I rescued many of them, believing that we might need this resource again. I am the only person who rescued the historic lines of Montana corn and many lines from surrounding states. With partners, we are advancing this almost-lost regional gene pool.
ADVANCING THE GENETICS
We are not just seed savers. We created a diverse gene pool for the region and are advancing it for further stress tolerance, for nutrition, yield and to make the primitive plants more machine harvestable.
This gene pool is called Painted Mountain Corn, which is being advanced as many sub-strains. The primer line of Painted Mountain and the focus of this project is a selection called Montana Morado Maize. Morado, means “very dark purple” or “black” in South American Spanish. Montana Morado Maize has so much pigment in it that the kernels are black. The pigments are anthocyanins, which have recently proved to be powerful antioxidants for human health and healing.
If I could only give one of my lines of corn to the world, it would be Morado. The development of this line was made possible because of Western SARE’S support to me and my partners.
We made tremendous progress locating obscure high anthocyanin genes in near-extinct native corn and moving them into this regionally adapted population. I do not believe that anyone else has ever located or used these genes that we found in North American corn. Every day has brought a thrilling sense of accomplishment and been a privilege for being able do something that is already helping so many.
My two partners, Bob Quinn and Ole Norgaard, grew five and ten acres each year as organic crops. The small efficient native corn plants are not a match for the machinery used for the large corn they grow in Iowa. They located machinery and developed farming procedures that were efficient for planting, weed control and harvesting this new crop. They grow it organically with low input and with some of the techniques of no-till farming to help build up the West’s over-used soil.
Different nations have been going to South America to get the black corn there to use in the food industry. I was the first person in North America to begin developing a black high antioxidant corn. I did this before I ever knew about South America’s work on it. And I was the first person to develop a market for it in North America.
When we began, we had a buyer in the health food industry. We were selling the corn for $2.25/lb and making $2,000 an acre. This is a very high profit per acre for a grain farmer. Unfortunately our buyer failed to pay his bills, and we lost this very profitable market for now.
There is now a second project that began in South American and moved to the U.S. They are growing purple corn to make food coloring, so that we can color our food with antioxidants and not carcinogenic coal tar dyes. Tests have suggested that our Morado has higher anthocyanin levels than their corn. We are in discussions about sharing Morado’s genetics.
The interest in high antioxidant corn is growing fast, and I predict that there will be lots of new products and markets in the future. Those businesses will require a steady supply of corn each year. We are not ready to get that involved in supplying large volume to others yet.
My partner, Ole Norgaard, has been laying the foundation for a purple cornbread product that he will market. That is about a year away. We will not look for other markets until that gets accomplished.
Today two things are coming at us fast like tsunamis; climate change and the take-over of the seed industry by giant corporations.
A few generations ago, most farmers grew their own corn. They collected their own seeds and were self-sufficient. They knew how to do this. They had their own technology, and there was locally adapted seed in almost every county in the nation.
Those days are gone. The huge seed monopolies raise almost all the seed planted today. It has been a few generations since farmers knew how to select their own seed. They have to be trained. Industrial agriculture has worked on massive industrial scale in the warmer, more productive parts of the nations. But there are many small farmers in western dryland, high elevation or climate stressed regions where the modern corn will not grow.
The awareness of the need for sustainable agriculture is growing. But who is giving us the seeds? The breeders are gone. It has been said that there are probably only a dozen independent small corn breeders left. And the universities that have not abandoned their breeding programs for the public have locked them up so only those who can afford it can purchase their work.
This project is dedicated to developing grain that can withstand extreme climate variations, and also to put the genetics back in the hands of the farmers. Currently farmers in my town are feeding corn that is shipped in from Nebraska, two states away. This is a waste of fuel.
Modern corn is highly productive, but it is called “petro-agriculture” because it is dependent upon large resources of perto-chemicals for fuel, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Its jungles of 10′ tall plants require lots of water. It is draining the nation’s aquaphors and stripping the land. Furthermore, the nutrients have been stripped out of modern industrial corn, which is largely grown for calories. Some see corn as a plague that could doom our civilization.
Our goal is to lay the foundation for the day when farmers, particularly in stressed western climates, will be able to grow productive and nutritious corn that we developed from ancestral local genetics. You cannot alter a modern corn with a few genes to make it grow in a region where it did not evolve. The only way to get corn to thrive all the challenges of a specific region is to work with the corn whose ancestors thrived in that region for thousands of years. I call this “regional metabolism.”
This project had three main objectives:
? Genetic development
? Farming procedures
With Western SARE’S help, we have come a long ways in reintroducing the sustainable corn of the region, in an even hardier form. We have transformed it into a high antioxidant human food and advanced its amino acid (protein) profile. We have pioneered low input farming practices and have been sharing the technology with farmers across Montana.
GENETIC DEVELOPMENT is a big part of this project. It is accomplished in many ways.
Each year, 12-16 different private farmers from all over the state of Montana have been participants by growing specially selected lines and helping to develop unique genetic traits. It has been a lot of driving for me. But managing this widespread distribution benefits the corn by exposing it to a variety of ecozones across the West, and it involves farmers in many communities who share their excitement.
In most cases they get to keep the grain for their family food and farm animals, but I show up to harvest the ears from the plants that have advanced the farthest. This trains other farmers how to grow the corn and how to select seed, while they do the crop multiplication that I do not have time for. We build wonderful friendships, and this is helping to return corn culture to the small and big farm.
The project’s technical adviser, Perry Miller, has made from one large plot to eight smaller plots available to me at Montana State University’s research farm in Bozeman each year. He plants the lines according to my instructions and arranges apprentices to weed and care for them during the season, because I live far away. Jeff Holmes and Macdonald Burgess have dedicated themselves faithfully to helping Perry with at the research farm. This requires people who put their heart into it and protect the delicate requirements of genetic advancement.
I show up throughout the season for thinning and pollination. There are usually students or faculty who come to see the project when they hear that I am there. In fall I get there first and select the best genetics before the harvest.
The corn is grown dryland. Perry has grown test plots of the fastest commercial lines available to compare to our Morado. The commercial lines usually failed because they would not mature on time in the cold mountain climate. And they did not recover from hail damage like the versatile native corn.
Perry planted our Morado in different densities every year to see which planting density yielded the most grain. Below is a photo of young plants in one of the smaller trial plots.
But we had devastating hail storms for three years that thinned out the plants, and the yield results were about the same. Each year we thought there would be no crop, but we were always surprised at how the hardy native plants would recover.
One year the golf ball sized hail was so bad that it busted almost all the stalks off and bruised the rest. We feared no corn would survive. But about 100 were still standing, of which 21 had all the qualifications to be breeders for next year. The genetics narrowed in this line, but it has become some of my strongest most machine harvestable corn.
The university has a small modern combine harvester that does a great job on low-growing native corn.
The research farm has drying ovens so that the ears can be dried quickly.
The most helpful thing about the research farm is that Bozeman is 5,000′ elevation and really too cold to grow corn. And so each year we push it for more cold tolerance. The line we developed at the research farm is my most cold-hardy line of corn.
Another challenge is that one year there was commercial corn grown nearby which was not sold as GMO. But we tested it, and it was GMO-contaminated as many “non-GMO” commercial corns are contaminated. I believe that none of my Morado got pollen from the commercial plants. If they had, commercial hybrids would have been easily recognizable the next year. I saw nothing suspicious.
However, we needed to test it to make sure, because the infusion of one GMO plant into my larger population could kill all my work. Each year the Western SARE grant has made it possible for me to pay to test the ears that seed will be chosen from. All have been clean. But this is not proof. It only tells us that the mother plants are safe. Any of the individual kernels may have potentially gotten contaminated pollen.
This research line is ready to be infused into the larger Morado population. But before I do that, next year I must self-pollinate every selected plant in a home plot, and then test them all. This is a large investment of time, but then we will be assured that there has been no GMO contamination.
Last year at the research station we planted the best 45 ears, each in their own plots. This method is called “ear-row selection.” It allowed us to see which families carried the most desirable genes, and which families carried the worst genes. It was a great aid in selection.
I appreciate my advisor’s interest, support and enthusiasm in managing the test plots, because I live miles from the university. And I appreciate his position in the agricultural world where he can share what we are doing together with others.
I will mention that I also need to do GMO testing for the experimental lines that I introduce in my home nursery. I have given two talks at the Montana State Senate about this threat, as well as talks to the general public.
Every winter I spend time dissecting seeds and testing them for nutrition.
The Morado Maize is being developed as a high antioxidant source for human health and nutrition. But we might as well increase the protein quality at the same time because we want this corn to benefit human health in every way. One thing I have tests run for is the lysine content. Lysine is the most critical building block of protein for health, and it is what all grains are the most deficient in. So I am gradually finding the corn that has the highest lysine content and multiplying it.
I take about four kernels from self-pollinated ears and mark what ears they came from. Then I cut-off a little chip of the starch off the top. I take these to Dr. David Sand’s plant pathology lab, also at MSU, Bozeman, MT.
We put the pieces of kernels in a petri dish which has an agar nutrient in it. The nutrient is absent in one specific amino acid, like lysine. The nutrient agar has also been inoculated with a bacteria that requires lysine. And so when the corn kernel is placed on the nutrient and incubated 36 hours, a visible bacteria colony will grow around the corn kernel.
The kernels that have the most lysine in them will grow the biggest colonies of bacteria. This is how we test for which corn has the highest lysine. We test for tryptophan too. We do thousands of these. The test is not really accurate, but it helps us make distinctions between high and low plants. I send some samples off to a lab for a more expensive and accurate analysis to check our progress. The last time, my bulk corn tested .362% lysine, which is higher than most open pollinated native corns and 147 % higher than many commercial yellow dent corns. Some individual lines had the protein quality of meat.
Plant pigments, like red, purple and blue are chemical anthocyanins, which act as powerful antioxidants. Western SARE funding was used to test the different colors of corn to see which were the most powerful antioxidants. They were sent to a lab for an ORAC test. We did about a dozen color samples at about $360 per sample. As far as I know, this was the first set of tests ever done to rate the different pigments. There are six different anthocyanins that they test for, and several unknowns showed up. Each color is a mixture of the different anthocyanins.
Our black Morado sample tested higher than the Andean black that is sought after around the world for its medicinal properties. And mine tested 50% higher than blueberries, the highest common antioxidant food in most grocery stores. Corn is cheaper to grow than blueberries. Tests were also taken on colored husks, which ran very high. I am selecting for plants with colored husks, cob cores and even plants that have dye in the pith of the stalks. I am preparing for the possibility that industry may want to grow whole corn plants as a source of nutritional anthocyanins.
It has only been about a decade since scientists discovered the healing effects of anthocyanins. High anthocyanin foods are more than food. Bob Quinn says that “food is medicine.” Anthocyanins are called “nature’s first aid kit.” It is all natural. It is not a foreign chemical. The medical research is coming in about the benefits of anthocyanins. The most prominent anthocyanin in our Morado corn is cyanidin. See Outcomes and Impacts for benefits of anthocyanins.
The two photos below show the variety of anthocyanins that occur in Painted Mountain Corn. It is an advantage for human health to have more than one anthocyanin because they enhance each other’s effects.
A lot of selection can be done without paying to test everything. It is easy to give a preliminary screening for anthocyanins by looking at the kernels and choosing the darkest ones.
There are two main places where a kernel can be pigmented: the hull on the outside and the aleurone layer of starch right under the hull. The best thing is to chose the kernels that have both layers as intensely pigmented as possible. Two layers of dense pigment is better than just one. You want the hull to be so dark of a red-purple that it looks black. And you want the layer under it to be navy blue, also almost black.
The challenge is that when the hull is black, it is almost impossible to see what color or lack of color is in the second layer under it. And so I sit with strong glasses on, under a very bright transparent light looking for the darkest kernels on each ear and plucking the darkest kernels off with an awl to save them for seed to plant.
People watching cannot see any difference between dark black and medium black, and they say that they would go insane doing that for an hour, let alone all day and evening. If there was a national contest for plucking out certain colors of corn from a cob, I am sure I would win the national award. I do not think anyone else has ever done this. The photo shows how painstaking of work this is. You have to be careful not to accidentally rub off the unwanted kernel!
I separated enough kernels in this way to plant 15 acres and have emergency back-up in case of a crop failure. They almost filled a 50 gallon barrel. After several years of this the job is getting easier. There are more fully black kernels now. I have prevented others in the future from having to go through this again. The Andean corn was not selected for the inner layer of pigment. That is one thing I did to create a line with more antioxidants.
But black kernels also have different densities of pigment, and some can be more water soluble, while others are less soluble. It depends upon the mixture of pigments. So I put the kernels from individual ears through a soak test. I place five kernels from each ear in a little plastic cup of water and record which ones release the most dye into the water. About one out of ten is superior and bleeds dye so dark that it looks like grape juice. You must make sure that no chaff remains attached to the kernel because the pigment in the chaff will compromise the results.
While I was dissecting kernels, I discovered something wonderful. A few kernels had a little pigment in the germ as well, and some even had fully purple germs! Wow! This would boost the antioxidant ability through the roof! Also the antioxidants in the vitamin-rich germs would help keep them from losing their vitality, and once ground into flour it might keep certain nutrients viable longer.
I have communicated with, and sent samples to, Marty Sachs and Phil Stinnard at the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center in Illinois. They told me that purple germs and black hulls could not be combined in a stable combination, because they are both dominant and their genes both occupy the same slot on the chromosome. I have to chose one or the other or settle for an unstable half-and-half variable situation.
But I did not want to lose this dream, so I banked on the chance that in my great diversity of pigment genes collected from many strains of native corn I might have genes in there for hulls or germs that are on different chromosomes. And so I made lots of crosses and found that I have genes that no one discovered before. I have some lines now that are as dark as possible and have fully purple germs too!
And so now I am dissecting kernels from thousands of cobs to find the families that have the purple germs, and I am infusing that trait into all my corn. I expect it will take five to ten years before we see a lot of the purple germs in the general population, because you cannot just throw away all your work when you find one trait. You must painstakingly introduce the new trait into the population without losing all your former progress with other traits. Thank you Western SARE for giving me time to do this! I already have a young farmer who wants to take on multiplying this project.
I have three plots or nurseries in my home town where I hand pollinate about 3,000 plants each summer. This involves about 1/4 acre. It is all genetic trials. Here is where the best genetic work happens. This takes about 14 hours a day, every day, with no weekends off and no vacations.
This is where I do controlled pollination. I bring in genes for nutrition, pest resistance, good roots, stand ability, or a high methionine line for chicken food, etc. Some of these come from experimental projects around the world. Most of these are crossed to my own corn so I can bring these genes into my Montana population. There is not time to describe each line here.
Corn naturally gets pollinated with no problems in the field. But when you want to control which pollen a plant gets, here’s how you hand pollinate:
When you see the silks starting to come out of the plant’s stalk, you put a little paper bag over the silks and budding ear to protect it from getting any pollen that is blowing around. The little bags are called “silk bags.”
Then you chose the plant you want to get the pollen from. It may be from another line. Or you may want to pollinate it by itself. Remove the covering from the silk and shake some of the desired pollen onto the silk. You may break off a tiny branch of the tassel to get the pollen, or you may shake the pollen into the silk bag and then pour the desired pollen onto the silk. Then cover the silk again with the little bag. Breeders of larger corns also cover the pollen tassels, but the strong winds would blow them away here. So I only cover the silks. The time it saves allows me to do more, and I am happy with about 95% accuracy.
Here I am in my “corn breeder’s uniform” displaying a silk bag. You can see bags on the corn ears behind me. The ladder is to elevate the water sprinkler.
The largest part of my hand pollination work is to take the best lines of my own corn and self-pollinate them. There are two reasons to do this. First and most obvious is to stabilize the desirable genes so I can use them in crosses as well as return to the larger gene pool to strengthen it.
The other important reason to self-pollinate is to eliminate the defects. Ninety percent of the time there are bad genes hiding in good corn, and inbreeding exposes them so I can get rid of them from the population forever.
In other words I take my most successful plants or the ones with the highest nutrition genes and inbreed them. It results in the loss of 90% of them which is a hard loss. But the 10% that have all the good genes are highly valuable, and if I keep discovering these year after year, it will only strengthen all my work. This has been done for 200 years with commercial corn. But no one has ever done this with native western region corn.
Many of the bad genes, or “deleterious recessives” cause metabolic problems. The seedlings may be pale green and not have enough energy. There are lots of photosynthesis problems. Or they may freeze easily. Or they may be spotted and die at 6″ tall. Or adult plants may wilt in summer or break in the wind. They can have bad plant architecture, bad types of tillers, too many tillers, too short of husks, or too long of shanks.
Unimproved native corn is loaded with horrible unwanted genes. Some plants may be ideal, but then when you open the husk in fall to look at the ear, it may be horribly deformed. And I have already spread its pollen to my best work, ruining it too. The ear may be too small, or too fat and jumble rowed.
It can be very discouraging. But the guys at the Maize Genetics Cooperation – Stock Center in Illinois have been teaching me that you can sometimes learn to identify a plant that will give you a deformed ear by studying the tassel on the top of the plant. Sometimes whatever deforms the cob will make a subtle change in the tassel as well. Being able to recognize these is saving me a lot of heartache and lost breeding work.
The worst mutation is an ear that has five little ears growing out of it, and it looks like a hybrid between a tassel and a cluster of cobs. The Christmas tree looking tassel on the left in the picture below is from a plant that will produce such a cob. So I know to detassel it and not spread its pollen. The tassel on the right is normal.
CROSS BREEDING WITH MODERN CORN
This is a good time to mention that while I am maintaining pure native genetics for hand harvest for the stressed regions of the West and the world, that I am also crossing my native corns to strong modern corns. This is so people who live in warmer climates can grow my high nutrition cobs on completive modern plants.
This work has a long way to go. The best modern corns that mature fast and dry fast in Montana are Harold Crosses lines maintained by Marcelo Carena at NDSU, Canada’s CM-7, and IHAR-F from Poland. I have tried thousands. You can get these from the national seed bank in Ames, Iowa. Their web site is: http://www.ars-grin.gov/npgs/acc/acc_queries.html
I am not just creating lines to be used as they are. But part of my purpose is to rescue and maintain regional corns so that in the future people can do breeding with them to bring hardiness traits into whatever corn they are growing. Actually, several farmers are doing this now.
The photo below shows a small section of one of my hand pollination nurseries. You can notice both tall and short plants. I am making crosses to improve the stalk strength of native plants.
In the photo below, to the center and right are two of the fastest and most productive modern lines that I grew that year. They have spotted kernels because I put native pollen onto them. The ears to the left are the next generation. They are the children of the modern corn crossed with tiniest native corn that I had. The whole plant was only 16 inches tall. Even my worst native corn carries genes for high production on small or stressed plants. And of course the Painted Mountain hybrid matured two weeks earlier than the strictly modern parent. This is proof that native corns have much to contribute to modern corn breeding for our region.
MONTANA MORADO MAIZE
Now for the jewel in the crown of all this work and the larger volume of this work: the black corn.
Montana Morado Maize was grown by Bob Quinn and Ole Norgaard, five and ten acres each year respectively. They are both large organic grain growers and leaders in the sustainable agriculture organizations. They have both invested their lives deeply into the farming and development of this crop. Bob lives in Big Sandy and always has a successful crop because it is warmer there. Ole leases a farm near Lewistown where he has had bad freeze damage two of the three years.
WHEN TO PLANT
It makes a big difference when you plant. There are benefits and drawbacks of planting at any time. May 15 is the ideal time to plant for day length considerations. But you can move the date up or back two weeks. In 2008, we had a dry winter and there was little moisture in the ground. We knew we had to plant early. We planted at the end of April. It was a warm spring with mild frosts, and the corn did its important growing before the July heat and drought hit. The crop matured early in September. But it was a horrible year for weeds, because weeds outgrow corn in cold weather, and if you do not spend a lot of money hiring weeders, you lose most of your production.
In 2010, we did not plant until the middle of June because of mud and rain. Montana had another “historic climate disaster.” The ground is always tilled before planting, and the weeds that sprouted in May and early June were all killed in the middle of June. The corn got a fast start in the warm ground and weeding was easy that year.
HOW TO PLANT
When you are growing five to ten acres, you cannot plant that much by hand. You need some large equipment. But there was not enough income to purchase brand new equipment. So we looked for used equipment that fit our needs. Both farms have six-rowed seeders that are pulled by tractors.
Native corn kernels are not as small as popcorn and not as big as modern yellow dent. It is hard to find seeder plants with holes the right size for them. So there can be a problem with too many kernels falling through one hole in the seeder plate at a time. Also, some kernels will be bigger and some smaller.
Ole had a standard seeder with plates that had holes the right size for our corn. Some kernels double planted, but it was not too many. And I screen Ole’s seeds through sieves so we can group the seeds by size.
Bob’s seeder had too big of holes, and it planted two to three kernels at each drop. That is not as good for the plant’s performance, and it forces me to provide twice as much valuable seed as needed.
Bob found a neighbor selling a used seeder that had a finger mechanism that guaranteed that only one seed would be planted at a time, whether it was large or small. This is wonderful. The new seeders are like this. With Bob I can intermix small kernels from stressed growing conditions, with large plump seeds from better growing conditions and allow them to intermix their genetics.
When choosing seed you want to select from the parts of the field that have good conditions, and also you want to chose some seed from plants that were in the struggling zone and yet managed to produce grain. Also, it is good to plant seeds from both good years and bad years and from different locations.
In our trials we learned that if you only plant seeds from the favored locations, the line will become dependent upon favored conditions and will lose its hardiness and adaptability. On the other hand if you only plant seeds from stressed plants, your plants will get smaller and smaller because smaller plants survive stress. Also the small stressed plants can be hiding undesirable plant growth that will show up on large fully developed plants. So you want your genetics to be flexible, and that is accomplished by selecting the winners under varied conditions and varied locations.
This corn has been sent to many counties, many states and many nations. Everyone finds that because of its great genetic diversity, that some plants do better than others and after just a year or two of selection it adapts to its now home and the yields get very impressive. I have worked hard to keep genetic diversity in all the lines I am developing.
When we plant the large acres, we break the corn up into many genetic lines. I have to follow behind the tractor and change the seed in the canister when he stops at the end of the planting blocks. By planting in blocks, we get to study which line is the best one, and we get a certain level of group pollination. This is not perfect genetic control like on the smaller farms, but we may get as much as 60% perpetuation of a population and thus more genetic control. Each year we plant about 25 lines. We discard about five lines which had more genetic problems. And we are always testing new lines from breeding projects from the genetic plots.
No chemicals will be used on the corn, so you have to get creative. You always cultivate and kill the weeds before planting the corn. However weeds can outgrow corn in the cold. So early weed management is important. Ole Norgaard purchased a used John Deere rotary hoe. This is a large implement pulled by a tractor. It has spikes on it that tear-up the soil and kill the tiny weed seedlings. Photo below:
He drives right over the corn plants criss-crossing the field at angles. You would think this would kill the corn, but it does not. The corn’s roots go deep enough, and if the tops are damaged it usually recovers. The rotary hoe is used about every two to three days. He starts three days after planting and stops when the corn is about 3″ tall. This helps give the corn some advantage over the weeds at the start and helps to make up for not using herbicides. He could not use the rotary hoe the year that the soil was muddy.
During the season the soil between the rows is cultivated with a conventional cultivator that any farm has. As the corn grows the cultivator can kick the soil up against the corn plants, smothering some of the weeds. If the corn was seeded in a furrow or low spot, it is easier to bury the weeds around them as you cultivate. This is done about four times. But when the corn gets close to knee high you cannot do it any more or else the top of the cultivator will break off the tops of the corn plants.
By this time the weeds close to the corn plants will be getting prominent. They have to be hoed or pulled by hand. Ole hoed his 10 acres twice by hand. Bob hired workers. This intensive labor is the down side of organic farming. With planned rotations and weed management, there will be less weeds inhabiting the corn.
If you cannot control the weeds, then do not plant so much. A 1/2 acre well-weeded will outproduce four acres grown right next to it that does not get weeded on time.
This corn is high in nutrition, and all of the animals know it. They prefer this corn over any other grain. If our corn is grown side by side with other corns, they will not touch the other corn but will demolish ours. Also all of the animals and all of the birds seem attracted to the darkest plants and ears. Their bodies must recognize the antioxidants.
Some grain farmers have flocks of local blackbirds. Some do not. Ole and Bob do not. Ole had to buy a sound cannon when the harvest was late, and migrating blackbirds and crows started attacking. It worked. Most years the corn is harvested before the migrating flocks find it.
Other growers live where there are local blackbirds that will demolish their corn in a matter of days. In these situations we have protected the ears by covering them with paper bags. These were just large sized silk bags we purchased with the pollination bags. At other locations we covered the corn with bird net. It is not realistic to grow more than a 1/4 acre plot if it is in a blackbird area.
Ole and Bob live in deer country. If you grow hundreds of acres of corn, the deer will only make a dent. But if you have 10 acres they will demolish it all quickly. This corn is their favorite food. Ole has to erect a temporary nylon 8′ fence around his ten acres. That is a lot of work. Bob plants a safflower barrier around his corn. This stickery plant keeps animals out. To that he adds an electric fence. It works until the deer follow the foot trails of the workers through the safflower and jump the fence.
We have quickly remove raccoons and skunks with live cage traps using canned fish for bait.
At harvest time I went through the fields looking for the plants that had the best traits for machine harvest-ability. When an ideal plant is found, the ear is looked at. If the ear is also outstanding, it is picked and taken indoors to dry with the other selected stock seed. The ears picked in the field are usually holding some moisture and must be further dried in circulating air. Only about 1,000 ears are good enough to be selected for next years crop.
The photo below shows a fraction of Ole’s seed ears doing their final drying on Ole’s floor.
Being able to choose from 15 acres has made the corn advance very quickly. The photo shows me in a field. You can see how many plants I examine to find the good ones. This takes me about ten days each field.
After I have removed the best genetics from the field, we can harvest the rest. In an acre size field a small crew can accomplish this in about three to five days. One advantage of hand harvesting is that you get to inspect the ears and reject any that are damaged or not ripe yet. And you are able to collect those that are too close to the ground for a machine to gather.
After hand harvesting we put the corn onto large drying racks, pictured below.
The corn needs dry circulating air. The warmer the better. Sometimes with a later harvest we have had to use fans and heaters.
Ole developed a quick drying method for hand picked ears. He puts then into the back of a truck, covered with a tarp for protection from the rain. He pipes warm air into the truck with a ventilator and it dries amazingly fast.
Bob and Ole both harvest their large acreages with modern combines. We found that old time corn pickers were useless. They leave the kernels on the cob anyway. Modern combines do more. They take in the whole plant, separate the ears, tear the husks off, shell the cobs and throw everything else out. The kernels are cleaned and ready to package and sell.
The corn has to be dry and standing in the field for this to work. It is more vulnerable to predators and falling down from snow the longer you leave it. But one of the beauties of native corn is that its small plants and thin cobs dry faster than modern corns.
MORE WORK NEEDED
In the photo below are plants at Bob’s in 2008. They are a few weeks away from being dry enough to combine harvest. They endured a horrible wind storm, yet most of them are standing and most ears are high enough for the combine to catch them.
Below are plants grown at Ole’s in a tougher year. They have stood a few weeks longer in the field to dry and withstood some weather. You can see that some of them are leaning or breaking.
Below is an typical Morado plant that endured stress and is waiting to be harvested. With lack of water, it sacrificed plant growth for the grain. This is good, but it often puts the ear too close to the ground. If the ear tilts, it will be even lower and harder for the combine to pick up.
In a wet year, or on farms that irrigate, the yield is huge, the plants are strong and tall and the ears are placed knee to waist high. But to make use of Montana’s dryland, the plants need more improvement if all the ears are to be gathered by machine. We have improved the stalk strength every year since these photos were taken.
Here are the problems:
Some of the plants are weak and fall over from wind or snow while they are waiting to dry in the field. When grown in drought or limited moisture most of the ears are placed lower on the plant and the combine will not be able to pick up a significant percentage of them.
Bob had a large combine. There was not enough volume of harvest, and too many kernels got crushed being blasted through the machine. So he switched to a smaller combine and it was better. Still maybe 1/3 of the ears were left in the field because they grew too low on the plants for the header to pick them up. We had a crew follow and pick-up the missed ears and throw them into the combine.
Ole bought a used all crop header, which he repaired. It is used to harvest beans and other crops that are low to the ground. This is adapted to native corn more than a typical grain header. The photo we have is sent with the paper copy.
Every farmer has good and bad years depending upon moisture and when the freezes come. We have had good years and also our share of heartaches farming dryland in risky climate areas. But then that is how you develop hardy plants so that the people who follow you will have more success.
Here is a disappointing experience we had in 2010. It was a wet year. The production looked good. The native plants grew second ears and tillers with ears on them. These secondary ears are slower to mature than the first ears. This seemed to be great, but we got an early deep freeze at Ole’s that year, and these secondary ears were not dry when they froze solid. The result was that they soured.
With hand harvest you can feel if they are dry or not. One could easily avoid the damaged ears or discard them. But when you have ten acres to harvest you prefer to use a combine. The machine cannot distinguish and collects the good with the soft and soured ears. The soured ears will taste bad so the bulk harvest cannot be used for food purposes.
In such a case the crop can only be saved by hand-harvest. Some fast workers can actually rescue a lot pretty fast if you are not trying to save everything. You just pick the big dry primary ears and throw them in the combine which is moved and parked in different parts of the field.
Test plots showed that this corn could produce 105 bu/ac. This is with moderate water, good weeding and hand-harvest. In spite of some industrial farms producing 200 or even 300 bu/ac, the average corn farmer in America produces 100 bu/ac. In a good year we achieved 35 bu/ac. This was letting the corn dry in the field and machine harvesting, which left a lot behind. At $2.25/lb for the nutraceutical industry, that was a great income. During the drought years with early killing freezes at Ole’s farm, we went as low as 20 and even 2 bu/ac.
The goal is to continue advancing Morado so that the stalks are stronger, the ears are placed higher, the timing is uniform, and the number of tillers are reduced. And while doing this, expect it to mature and dry fast and maintain its adaptability and vigor. It is a lot to ask. Together our team has come a long, long way from the meager handful of plants we started with. But to be honest, it is going to be years of steady advancement before every Morado ear will be picked-up in a combine for large acreage machine harvesting.
On the other hand, the hand-harvest farmers praise its genetic diversity and adaptability and plead with me not to change it too much. One grower in Colorado phoned me yesterday. He grew 1.5 acres of my corn at 7,000′ elevation. In late June, the corn was waist-high, and a solid freeze destroyed the stalks. He said that the main stalks recovered enough to produce two big ears near the ground, and tillers emerged providing pollen and third ears. He got a huge production after a freeze that would have killed modern corn.
And so I have many growers, and I am advancing and maintaining the corn in many forms.
This western native corn has already made huge impacts in third world countries that have climates like our West. After the North Koreans grew it in their mountainous regions for four years, they reported that it increased their grain production 260%. This year I got a letter from a village in Argentina where they ate corn as their staple, but they had to get it from the village below because their village was at too high of elevation to grow corn. They grew my corn and it matured. They were so grateful and pleased to be able to grow their own grain.
We are not living on the edge in America, and so this corn will not be making a huge impact in the next few years. But I have been doing this for the future since day one. With more possible climate change, or the collapse of the resource dependent petro-chemical commercial corns, this native corn may become essential to many in America too, especially in our western region where farming can often be challenging and marginal.
Or the native regional genetics may be essential in cross-breeding programs. I did this so it will be here when we need it.
There are already hundreds of families that are raising this corn for their own food and for their farm animal’s feed. It is saving them money. Some of them just turn their animals out in the field at harvest time, and there is no labor involved in harvesting, and they do not need to ship their animals far away to fatten them. They do not need to purchase corn, and they do not need harvesting equipment.
Native corn produces large ears on very small plants. It does not strip the soil. The tall forests of modern corn are destroying our soils and depleting the water supplies. We are growing native corn without chemical fertilizers or any chemicals whatsoever. There is no pollution to contaminate the local water.
Here is a web site and some medical information about cyanidin:
Health Benefits of Cyanidin
Cyanidin and its glycosides may have pharmacological properties. These phytochemicals are responsible for the deep colour (mainly red, orange and blue) of many plants and fruits. They have many health promoting properties including anticarcinogenic activity, vasoprotective, anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity and anti-diabetes effects. Similar to other anthocyanins, cyanidin has antioxidant and radical-scavenging actions. These actions will protect our cells against oxidative damage and reduce the risk of cancer and hearth disease. Cyanidin glycosides are easily absorbed into the plasma.
Cyanidin and its glycosides are very strong antioxidants and are active at pharmacological concentrations. The antioxidant activity is stronger than that of vitamin E, vitamin C and resveratrol and similar to other commercial antioxidants. Cyanidin quickly neutralizes reactive oxygen species such as hydrogen peroxide, reactive oxygen and hydroxyl radical.
A study in Japan by Takanori Tsua et al indicated that cyanidin may have benefits for the prevention of obesity and diabetes. Cyanidin rich extracts significantly reduced the boy weight gain of mice fed with a high fat diet. Cyanidin reduces blood glucose level and improves insulin sensitivity due to the reduction of retinol binding protein 4 expression in type 2 diabetic mice.
Many studies have demonstrated the anti-toxic effect of cyanidin, mainly against mycotoxins. Cyanidin reduces DNA fragmentation and oxidative damage by aflatoxin B1 and ochratoxin A.
There are numerous studies demonstrating the anti-cancer activities of cyanidin The anti-cancer and anti-mutagenic properties of this anthocyanin is directly linked to its antioxidant properties. In-vivo and in-vitro studies are linking cyanidin to a reduced risk of leukemia, lung cancer, colon cancer, skin cancer and prostate cancer. Cyanidin induces cancer cell apoptosis, reduces oxidative damage to DNA, inhibits cell growth and decrease cancer cell proliferation.
The consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, mainly plants rich in anthocyanins, may help to control inflammation. Cyanidin from cherries alleviates arthritis in an animal model and reduces the serum level of malonaldehyde, which is a biomarker to measure the level of oxidative stress. Cyanidin suppress the inflammatory effect of zymosan in rats.) It can have important implications for the prevention of nitric oxide mediated inflammatory diseases.
Endothelial dysfunction causes the development of atherosclerosis, which can result in heart health problems, including stroke and heart attacks. Cyanidin increases the levels of endothelial nitric oxide synthase and heme oxygenase in a dose-dependent manner and inhibits the formation of reactive oxygen species induced by platelet-derived growth factor, a protein which has been linked to the development of atherosclerosis.
Studies suggest that cyanidin might successfully be employed for skin protection. Ultraviolet radiation of the skin tissue causes production of reactive oxygen species, resulting in oxidative stress, cell damage and eventual cell death or skin cancer. Cyanidin neutralizes free radicals and decreases the number of tumors induced by ultraviolet B radiation in rats. Treatment of cultured skin cells with cyanidin attenuated unfavorable biological changes caused by the radiation.
The strong antioxidant capacity of cyanidin can be beneficial in conditions of increased oxidative stress, such as during a myocardial ischemia, cerebral ischemia or liver ischemia. Myocardial ischemia is a disease characterized by reduced blood supply to the heart muscle, usually due to atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries. Its risk increases with age, smoking, high cholesterol levels, diabetes and high blood pressure. When blood supply restores after a period of ischemia reperfusion injury to tissue can occur. Cyanidin reduces oxidative damage to organ cells during reperfusion.
Educational & Outreach Activities
I have file cabinets filled with genetic records.
In my genetic work, I have worked with staff at North Dakota State University, Cornell University and MSU Bozeman, MT.
Bob, Ole, Perry and myself are all very active in organizations like Alternative Energy Resource Organization (AERO) and Montana Organic Association. They mention this project in talks and credit Western SARE, who they are well acquainted with. I gave talks to both of these groups during the course of this project. The corn was also mentioned at field days at MSU and at Bob Quinn’s every year.
The corn was boldly featured at Bob’s Western SARE-funded field day in 2008. Over 100 participants spent two hours listening to my story while standing in the corn. They found it very inspiring, and one even wrote me a letter saying it was the most moving project he ever heard of.
From this group came several who are growing small amounts of my corn for themselves, a few who became growers of mine, and several waiting in line to be given a project. There was at least one very interested person there from Idaho, and also another from North Dakota, who got into organic corn breeding. It is a pretty charismatic project.
Perry Miller has mentioned Morado at farm conference presentations and even showed an example of the black corn on TV presentations for Montana Ag Live on PBS. Many people told me that they saw it more than once.
In 2007, a friend, John Austin, and I gave a program to Native Americans from across the state re-acquainting them with Native crops and how they might get heirloom gardens started on their reservations. I have supplied several Natives in the Northwestern region.
I have helped develop a Native corn project going at the Rocky Boy Reservation working with Douglas Crebs.
There have been newspaper articles too. The project spreads by word of mouth. I hear from interested people a few times a week. Sometimes big grain growers. Sometimes it is small farmers wanting to grow part of their grain. In Oregon, there are whole communities of people eating this corn. To some it is a symbol for a whole new way of life. One couple approached me. The man gave his wife a necklace of my Painted Mountain Corn kernels instead of an engagement ring, and they both wore colored corn kernel necklaces in their wedding.
Working with a young generation of growers is very wonderful. They have a whole new way of looking at life, and they honor me as a mentor. A lady is writing a book on sustainable agriculture with a chapter about me. It is said that I did a lot to trigger the interest in developing new seeds from heirlooms, not just using what others allow us.
I will close with a cute story: I hired two twins in high school to help me hand-pollinate corn for three summers. One was a boy Sam, and the other his sister, Emile. I did everything in my power to encourage them, build their self-confidence, develop responsibility, to help them learn to work for someone else and to enjoy the productive world. Emile was very involved, but I never knew if Sam listened to anything.
But they went off to college and Sam’s professor credited him for changing the whole outlook of his class on understanding sustainable agriculture. The other students had heard about it and were politically correct, but Sam had been a part of my process and he brought the cause to life. That feels real good! I think all of us are touching the next generation.
Thanks for your participation: Bob and Ole, and my small farm growers: Alec McIntosh, Nancy Matheson, Jonda Crosby, John Austin, Ed Schultz, Jenny Sabo, Wes Henthorn, Greg Boylan, Cale Nittinger, Erin Janesco, Jill Russell, Kathryn KannaYaho, Casey Bailey, Marc and Gina Johnston, Crosby Walsh, John Navazio, Doug Baty, Frank Kutka, Erle Gross, Cassandra Mitchell, and apprentices Macdonald Burgess, Jacob Cowgill, John Thiebes, Dave Sievers, Sam and Emily Hodges. We have done great things together and I enjoyed the heck out of you!
My growers made a little money and expect to make more when Ole’s high antioxidant purple corn bread hits the market. I know that Western SARE is interested in income producing projects, but our main goal was always for the future of mankind and for sustainable agriculture; to do something to reverse the flow of genetic diversity from the planet. Sustainable genetics, not just sustainable farm practices. Farming is nothing without seed.
Or you could say that the natives of the West spent 8,000 years developing grain for here which sustained them all those millenniums And our civilization exterminated it in 50 years. And we gave it back.
We created the highest antioxidant grain in the world, and with our discovery of new genes, it will soon be even more amazing and important. The commercial use of corn for a source of anthocyanins is just getting started.
As large companies begin looking to corn for a source of cheap anthocyanin, it is likely that someone would just take my work as their own if it was out there for grabs. So we are planning on getting a trademark for Montana Morado Maize and maybe a variety protection act. We were told to first document using the name on bills or advertisements, etc. for a few years before claiming the name.
Painted Mountain Corn is my large diverse open-pollinated native gene pool. Montana Morado Maize, the black line, is a narrower genetic population which was selected from Painted Mountain for its high antioxidants (color). I continue to infuse superior plants that occur in Painted Mountain into the Morado line. So all these different lines are really part of one project.
And when I speak of all the success stories of sharing native corn, I am talking about sharing Painted Mountain Corn, the parent of Morado, or some of its sub strains. They are loaded with anthocyanins and even some of the black genes. But I am not sharing the pure line of Morado. Ole and Bob need to make some more money off it before giving it away to industry.
In my heart I long for the day when I release this high antioxidant line to everyone who wants it. I hope that will be sooner than later.
My team and I would like to hook-up with someone making a nutritional product with a high anthocyanin content. We will probably be ready to supply them when they are ready to produce.
I would recommend other applicants to ask themselves if their project will really be able to go large-scale or mechanized in their lifetimes, and if they care. If it will be important enough for your children, and you are really going to develop something significant, then get it started now. We all like to hear of quick projects and quick fixes. But there are rarely quick fixes in life, most definitely in genetics. Maybe in genetic engineering, but with natural breeding it takes decades to create something new. Get started.
Please look for the dirt farmer who has a vision but may not be as adapt as others in writing grant proposals and meeting government requirements but needs your help.
I will remind the Western SARE staff that the breeder is the most overlooked person, always. And yet the seed is the foundation of agriculture. If you want to change agriculture, someone has to change the seeds first. His work takes blood and guts, sacrificed time, endless breeding cycles and decades of time. You have to create ten thousand plants that fail before you create one that works better.
Do not ask him to make money on what he does. If he needed a reward besides his work, he would certainly do something else for a living. He lives in the Garden of Eden with God, where creation happens. And he knows how God feels about creating new forms of life. His work is its own reward. His life is wonderful!
It helps if he is obsessive-compulsive, or if he can learn to be, in order to endure the endless trials that do not work or to dissect seeds for 14 hours at a time looking for the one with the special trait and never get discouraged. Do not overlook the breeder. You need him. It all starts with the plants he gives you.
After I saw hungry people in North Korea from stripped-out farmland and saw our potential future here if we do not change, I came home, gave up my job and began using every minute of my life to create sustainable grain for mankind and the planet. Seeing starvation changes you. Just living in America I can help my brothers who cannot help themselves.
And I do thank you for keeping me going while I did this work.
I am very happy for this experience and I am very grateful. I have no complaints.
Lotsa love to everyone as we give the world back to God who made it.