The Story of a Seed: Hybrid Corn Edition
How does a corn seed get from plant to packet? Read on to learn about the intricacies of hybrid corn seed development and production through looking at the variety Enchanted F1. We hope the story of a seed entices you to try a new corn variety this season! To read about open pollinated corn seed production, click here.
Organic, hybrid sweet corn is a challenging seed crop to grow and source. Great strides have been made over the last several years to accommodate commercial organic farmers’ demand for higher quality organic sweet corn seed. The first step towards development of a new sweet corn variety is gaining an understanding of which traits are desirable. In the case of sweet corn, commercial farmers are looking for strong cool soil emergence, plant vigor and height, yield, storability, and – of course – flavor.
Sweet corn notoriously starts to lose its sugars the moment it is plucked from the plant, making it one of the most challenging cases for plant breeders. In order to understand the sugar loss on any given ear of corn, it is important to understand the different genetic types of sweet corn. These genetic types range from least to most sweet, and from least to greatest capacity for holding sweetness post-harvest. To learn more about these genetic types, please visit page 22 of our 2019 seed catalog.
Several years ago, High Mowing launched a partnership with Seneca Vegetable Research in upstate New York to start producing organic seed of some of Seneca’s most successful sweet corn varieties. These varieties, including Enchanted F1, have long been celebrated for their exceptional eating quality, but until this partnership was forged they were only available as conventionally produced seed.
High Mowing’s product development and research team examined Seneca’s sweet corn varieties in our organic field trials. From these trials, we determined that these particular varieties would be suitable for growing in organic conditions, and would provide a high-quality end product for commercial organic farmers. Seneca’s breeding team agreed to license these varieties to High Mowing in order to produce the first organic seed crops.
The Seed Grower
Because these varieties are first generation hybrids, the license agreement for these varieties actually means that High Mowing has access to the genetic lines of the male and female parent corn varieties – thus giving us the ability to grow out and cross the parents in order to harvest the seed that will grow into the hybrid variety. On our trials farm, we not only trial finished varieties against industry standards as mentioned above, but we also trial the parent lines of the hybrids. Strong cold soil emergence and vigor are key for seed production. Additionally testing for abundant pollen production and tasseling timing is important to make sure that the nick (timing of flowers of both plant sexes) is good. “Nicking” is the colloquial term for the synchronization of receptivity of the male and female plant organs; in other words, making sure the window of time that the male and female plants are flowering has maximum overlap to allow the pollen that is shed from the male plants to be received by the silk that is being produced by the female plants. “Good nick” is essential to achieve a successful hybrid seed crop, as the amount of pollen (from the male plants) meeting the silk (from the female plants) ultimately determines the number of kernels on an ear, and thus the yield of the seed crop.
Tom Stearns, High Mowing’s owner and founder, took on the challenge of producing these organic hybrid seeds for the very first time in the 2016 growing season. Production of organic, hybrid sweet corn seed is tricky. Direct seeding untreated seed into cool spring soil causes the seed to rot, so transplanting is sometimes necessary. Hybrid corn production also requires a special planting ratio for the male and female parent lines. Male and female lines are planted in their own rows on different dates to maximize good nick. Male pollen production should be strong so multiple female rows can be planted for each male row. The photograph here shows a MFFMFF row pattern in a crop of the parent lines of the hybrid variety My Fair Lady F1. Depending on the growing location, the vigor and expected maturity of the parent lines, and the grower’s experience with the crop, the ratio of male to female may vary. The goal, however, is always to maximize the seed harvest from the female plants without sacrificing nick window by planting too few male plants – the exact ratio of how many male-to-female plants to cultivate is a perpetual balancing act for the seed farmer.
In order to prevent the female line from self-pollinating, they are emasculated by removing the tassels before pollen is produced. The photograph here shows Charles on the High Mowing seed farm de-tasseling the female parent plants of Enchanted F1. The ears that are on the female line will have the hybrid seed.
The Seed Company
Once the hybrid sweet corn seed is grown and harvested, it undergoes a series of quality control tests to ensure germination and purity. It is critical to note that corn is one of the highest risk crops for GMO contamination, which is one of the reasons certified organic corn seed is hard to come by. High Mowing tests every batch of corn seed that comes to our facility through our third party certifier, the Non-GMO Project, to ensure no GMO contamination has occurred in our corn seed lots.
Finally, the seed arrives to its final location: the farm where it will be grown into delicious organic sweet corn and – we hope! – become a farm favorite.