- Agronomic: corn
- Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
This research project focuses on developing production methods for a potential specialty crop called ‘huitlacoche’ (pronounced weet-la-ko-cheh), sometimes referred to as Mexican truffle, which is a mushroom-like fungus that grows naturally on ears of corn. Huitlacoche galls were prized by the Aztecs and continue to be a popular food item in Mexican markets. In the United States, huitlacoche has been gaining in popularity, thanks in part to the increasing Mexican American population and also because of American consumers’ new affinity for or willingness to try new and exotic foods. Many consider it to be a delicacy, allowing it to sell for a much higher price than the corn on which it grows. Fresh huitlacoche is very hard to find, but it is sold by a few specialty growers (e.g. Three Sisters Garden, Kankakee, IL) at local farmer’s markets or directly to restaurants for over $25 per pound. Online, it can be purchased frozen for $20-$30 per pound (e.g. www.oregonmushrooms.com). With increased product demand and a high market price, cultivation of huitlacoche has the potential to provide sustainable, small-scale growers enough income to increase their economic sustainability. Efforts will be made to develop effective methods for huitlacoche propagation.
Project objectives from proposal:
For huitlacoche to be a dependable crop, propagation must be deliberate, as opposed to gathering the wild product opportunistically. This research project will determine whether huitlacoche can be commercially propagated in South Texas, in weather conditions typical throughout the South. This research project includes the following objectives:
1. Determine what sources of huitlacoche spores provide the highest success rate for propagation. Sources of huitlacoche spores will include frozen huitlacoche, fresh huitlacoche, and pure culture strains of Ustilago maydis, the fungus responsible for the occurrence of huitlacoche in corn. A sporidial suspension will be produced with each of these sources and used to inoculate corn in order to determine its viability as an inoculum.
2. Determine what varieties of corn are best suited for huitlacoche propagation. To determine which varieties are best suited for huitlacoche production in South Texas weather conditions, three varieties identified as being suitable for huitlacoche production will be planted and inoculated with each of the spore sources previously described.
3. Determine what propagation techniques result in the highest propagation success rates. They include injecting sporidial suspensions down the silk channel of each ear, injuring the base of the cornstalk of young plants and spraying the suspensions on the abraded tissue, and injecting sporidial suspensions into the leaf swirl of the developing corn plant.
4. Disseminate findings to local growers through outreach efforts. Outreach efforts will begin by reporting results on the University’s outreach website and the USDA’s Start2Farm website, and continue with the production and broadcasting of a project video on a regional television station. Training events will be conducted by the University and its resource partners, where growers will be informed of the best spore source, corn variety, and inoculation technique to use in order to grow huitlacoche successfully.