High-Nutrition Drought-Tolerant Corn

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Crop Production: organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Production Systems: permaculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter


    This project had three main objectives:

    ? Genetic development
    ? Farming procedures
    ? Marketing

    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.


    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.

    Project objectives:

    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
    ? Marketing

    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.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.