By VidaMaize 😉
Driving in rural southeastern Wisconsin recently I came across a sight I’ve never seen before: brown paper bags topped the stalks in a field of corn. What?! Was this the first step in early Halloween decorating? Instead of a corn maze were they going to draw jack-o-lantern faces on the bags? Playing cornhole bags is a popular yard game here; were these bags some sort of play on words? The above conjectures are a joke; I knew the bags had something to do with serious farming. So, I had to stop and ask the farmer what the paper bags were all about.
That’s how I met Jasper. He told me he was hand-pollinating the corn. I came to learn that he was basically chastity-belting corn stalks with paper bags: keeping the male and female parts of the corn under wraps to prevent errant cross-pollination.
Jasper works for a seed breeder, and they cooperate internationally with those looking to enhance the nutritional value and hardy heritage of the grains we eat—corn, oats, sorghum, and amaranth, while increasing soil health. He introduced me to his colleague, Alexander, and their boss, Dr. Walter Goldstein, founder of the Mandaamin Institute, a non-profit agricultural research firm based in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Mandaamin is the Algonquin word for corn or the spirit of corn—a connection to so many indigenous gods of corn and fertility in this western hemisphere and a reminder of its importance in our world. Walter worked for over twenty-five years as Research Director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy prior to starting his institute. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
Nutrition would seem to be the reason we eat. We all want to be healthy, and we love good tasting food. Yet, many of us grumble that the fruits and vegetables we eat today don’t taste as good as we remember, and our bodies suffer because food doesn’t contain the nutritional quality it used to. Our soils are degraded, and mass production of food today requires expensive chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and machinery. We have a running joke in our family that we will all show up on our cousins’ low-tech farm in Indiana after the zombie apocalypse. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, the supply chain breaks down quite easily, and secure, healthy food sources are paramount to our survival. The Mandaamin Institute’s program is the result of 49 growing seasons in Wisconsin, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. The objective: to naturally breed corn that is more nutritious, efficient and that is farmed in ways that leave our planet healthier.
This is not only good news for our soil, water, and those of us who eat corn, but also for the animals who consume corn. He and his team discovered nutritional value traits hidden in old land race corn back in 2004, and nitrogen-fixing corn in 2009. The photos on their website of the difference in the bright orange yolks of the eggs laid by chickens who eat Mandaamin corn vs. GMO corn, and in the color of the skin of the chickens producing such carotene-rich eggs, is remarkable. They’ve produced nitrogen-efficient or “fixing” corn as shown in the photo below and have naturally nitrogen-rich corn varieties that have the inherent smarts to produce bacteria that are partially consumed by the plant, feeding it with minerals and proteins. Those bacteria encourage the plant’s roots to grow numerous and large root hairs. The plant ejects that bacterium into the soil, enriching it, and then takes the bacteria in once again with new roots. Those bacteria make their way into the new seed and are stored there for the next generation. Thus, this corn is itself both a farmer and a seed breeder! Mandaamin also has varieties of corn that resist pollination from GMO pollen, a huge hurdle in organic and biodynamic farming.
Amazingly to me, Walter told me that in breeding ancient corn for modern soils, he has discovered that his nutritionally rich, hardy, soil-enhancing corn grows BETTER without fertilizers—including without manure! While that runs counter to gardening 101 principles that even I know, it is exciting stuff as these heritage plants naturally morph and reposition their own genomes in a relationship with the grower and the environment. They would sure seem to be just the seed I want on my cousins’ farm post-apocalypse!
Interestingly and typically, in my initial drive-by I had only noticed brown paper bags on the corn stalks—tassel bags. Visiting on foot the following day, we saw there were also white bags covering the ears (shoot bags), and learned that Jasper and Alexander use green and red tassel bags as well. The tassel bag colors are code for the process being used. Brown bags for their purposes indicate self-fertilizing (pollen from that same stalk is shaken onto the corn silk). Green bags are for sib mating sister plants in the row. Red bags designate crossing or cross-pollinating. The white shoot bags are used to cover the ear/silk so that it is not pollinated until that process purposefully occurs.
The process that we observed in the field, to my limited knowledge and observation skills, was this:
- As shoots develop and before tassels mature, its shoots are covered with a white waxed bag to prevent the silks from being pollinated. The bag must have plenty of room in it for the husks/silks/ear to grow and not pop the bag off. Interesting note: each pollinated silk produces a kernel of corn!
- Once a tassel matures sufficiently and develops anthers (pollen), it is covered with a bag that is tightly closed to contain the pollen. Jasper and Alexander used a staple gun to close the bags. There is usually a 2-to-3-day window when pollinating can occur, and it must be done in dryness.
- At the same time as the tassels are bagged, the white shoot bags are removed, and the husks and silks are trimmed. The shoot bag is then quickly replaced, to limit exposure to airborne pollen.
- The following day, the tassels are shaken into the tassel bag to collect the pollen, and the bag carefully removed. The shoot bag is removed to reveal an overnight growth of silks ready and waiting for pollination. For the self-pollination we witnessed, the pollen is sprinkled on the shoot (ear/silk) of that same stalk. The numbered tassel bag is then stapled securely over the pollinated shoot.
- Once the silks have dried and kernels have started to develop, the shoot bags will be removed.
They want to breed “synchronous plants,” those that develop pollen and silks at the same time. If a plant doesn’t, it will be ignored. Their plants are all organic, though they are not officially certified. The ears will be hand harvested.
I can tell you from personal experience that once that pollen gets shaken off the tassels, the bees come out in droves! They are very, very excited to smell all that fresh pollen, so it’s a good thing the shoots get covered again quickly and tightly.
Each of the paper bags has a date on it, so that when the ear is harvested, they will know when it was pollinated. Each range in the field is numbered, as is each row, and there are tags indicating those locations. Thus, it’s very easy to track progress.
I watched Jasper discard a shoot whose bag had fallen off and its silks exposed to the air; that’s no good for their testing purposes. The corn plant puts most of its energy into the top shoot or ear, so that is the one that they pay most attention to when covering. However, Mandaamin is working on corn that is more productive, minimum two ears per stalk, so they cover the shoots they see growing. I found it sad to learn that most corn produced today only has one ear per stalk! Very different from my youth. I was told that is why it’s now planted so much closer together than it was when I was a child.
I also watched him perform “surgery.” Jasper found a shoot whose silks were not exposed, and he had to cut back the husk a bit for them to gain freedom. He told me this is not ideal, but necessary. He then covered the shoot for pollination the following day.
Another memorable thing I witnessed was one ear of corn on the tassel of the plant! What? Even I know that’s not “right!” Turns out this was a hermaphrodite, produced by a sucker plant that lives off a main plant. I thought that was cool. Jasper says they leave those be, not covering them, as they are not useful for their research purposes.Another memorable thing I witnessed was one ear of corn on the tassel of the plant! What? Even I know that’s not “right!” Turns out this was a hermaphrodite, produced by a sucker plant that lives off a main plant. I thought that was cool. Jasper says they leave those be, not covering them, as they are not useful for their research purposes.
Finally, I learned that my beloved huitlacoche, that corn fungus that Mexicans cook up so deliciously and that I love in a cream sauce over chicken, grows here, too. Here it is called “smut” and is a sign of a corn plant out of balance—one which cannot control the fungus Ustilago, which naturally infects corn.
Mandaamin’s process of emergent evolution selects the best plants and grows them under hardship conditions: sandy soil, in the gravel left behind in a quarry, under severe drought. Locally here in southeast Wisconsin they experiment with about 20 acres each season; only three to four are hand-pollinated, the remainder are seed trials. They partner with traditional and organic farmers and a medium sized seed company called Foundation Organic Seed. They collaborate with Professor James White and his lab at Rutgers and with North Carolina State University. They do not use fertilizers but occasionally spread manure to maintain soil fertility. They have published their research in peer-reviewed scientific journals and base their approach on feedback from farmers obtained at the turn of the millennium in workshops with the Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Minnesota Organic Growers, and the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference.
Most of Mandaamin’s seed of old-time corn comes from the USDA, which he tells us has a fantastic collection of corn. The plant introduction station in Ames, Iowa is where Walter usually goes to get corn from anywhere in the world. Oats, wheat, and other small grains he obtains from the repository in Idaho. “These centers and their plant introduction system are one of the best things about this country. They have rich sets of seed varieties from all over the world, and very supportive and helpful people who help us identify races and their traits to aid our research. They also gift seed to people all over the world.”
Walter showed me corn that’s part Mexican chapalote—the oldest corn in North America, which they’ve bred for nitrogen efficiency. Mandaamin has winter nurseries in Puerto Rico and Chile, so breeding continues year-round. This is not seasonal labor. Jasper, for example, works year-round, working on research and development and preparing seed for planting.
Besides an ongoing quest for funding to continue operations, and talent committed to pursuing biodynamic and organic corn breeding, Mandaamin faces the dilemma of how to get their seed used by farmers while protecting their discoveries from the opportunism of other seed breeders who could pirate their hard work. They want to get their work out there, but don’t want to be stupid. They refuse to patent their work, though they do license it; they rely on an honor system based on the ability to genetically track their seed.
Humans have been cultivating new plant varieties to suit their purposes since farming began—plants suitable to local climates, flowers with new colors, drought- or pest-resistant crops, higher-yield varietals. It makes sense that we would care for plants in a way that makes them more of what we want and need. There are at least two ways of doing this.
- Hybrids are developed in the field using natural, low-tech methods. Hybridization from cross-pollination happens naturally in the wild. Classic open-pollination plant-breeding takes six to ten generations. Modern controlled crossing takes only one generation (F1). A belief frequently underlying this process is of a two-way relationship between the grower and the plant; one takes care of the other.
- Genetically modified (GM) varieties are created in a lab in combination with field work using complex technology such as gene splicing, which can mix genetic material from differing kingdoms such as bacteria and plants. GM seeds are also frequently implanted with pesticides or fertilizers. A belief frequently underlying this process is of a one-way relationship: plants provide sustenance.
Corn is a wild grass that has been selectively bred by humans since its domestication in Mexico over 10,000 years ago! That wild grass—teosinte—produced only 5-10 kernels per stalk, while modern corn can have over 500 kernels! Corn today is a staple food for billions of people worldwide and a source of livelihood for millions of farmers in hundreds of countries. It has hundreds of varieties with numerous colors and traits. Corn feeds humans as well as livestock, can be turned into ethanol, used for brewing beer, turned into high-fructose syrup, cooking oil, and even bio-plant-based plastics.
The paper bags in the corn field are a way of testing and hybridizing corn in a controlled manner. Seed breeders like Jasper combine the scientific method with natural, simple yet very labor-intensive techniques to enhance the nutritional value of our food and improve soil health. Their techniques provide a natural alternative to GMO.
The problem with both F1 hybrids and GM plant varieties is that they create a dependency on seed companies because growers must purchase new seed every year. Newly developed GM formulas and hybrids are licensed for one-time use: farmers buy seed to plant yet cannot harvest productive seed from the crops they grow to produce more food. Our agricultural industrial complex has broken nature to recoup its research and development costs and make money, making it impossible to reproduce such seed naturally. In the case of Mandaamin, the farmers have demanded hybrids rather than open-pollinated varieties because they want the traits that hybrids provide.
Mandaamin is a labor of love, a non-profit that is looking out for our common good. They need donations and investment to continue their research. Please donate via their website or this link if you are able. If you know like-minded breeders or farmers, or are interested in a possible partnership, please contact Walter (+1-262-248-1533 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information on partnerships and support.
How can people learn about this type of farming? Walter told us that the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, some provinces in Canada) has a farmer-breeder club. Most university programs sadly do not teach this type of farming; working and apprenticing are the only way to really learn. He would like to organize a national association and start an educational and training program through that association.
This method of agriculture is truly a blend of art and science; it represents a dedication to the understanding of being one with the planet. I am grateful to these brown paper bags in the field and to the men who tend them; it gives me hope for our planet’s and our future health.
I am better off by having met these men, and I thank them for it. Through them I learned that I grew up just miles away from the oldest biodynamic farm in the USA—the Zinniker farm! I know we have at least two respected research institutes here locally, aimed at improving our health and that of our planet via better farming. I learned about an awesome sustainable farming school run by an incredible Norwegian immigrant to this area: FarmWise Education‘s founder and Walter’s wife, Bente Goldstein. And I sincerely hope that some positive connection and collaboration will come from this article.