Issue 224: September 2004

 Open-Pollinated Corn

by Susan Hundertmark

While the hybrid corn on his farm might not make it this year because of the excessive rain and cold weather this summer, Victor Kucyk is looking at the silver lining. Some of the 100 varieties of open-pollinated corn he also grows will learn how to adapt to similar weather conditions and be able to thrive if a similar growing season happens again. “Open-pollinated corn remembers what happened to it. The silver lining is that it will pass the information on to the next generation,” he said at a recent tour of his operation by the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. “I can make five years' worth of progress in a poor year because it's easier to see the better corn. That's how nature is working with me.”

A former seed company employee, Kucyk began his own company after becoming intrigued by open-pollinated corn. “We have to thank the indigenous people who provided us with corn and rice. Without that, we'd be in trouble. This is 100 to 150-year-old corn but it goes back for millennia. It's been grown by indigenous people for millions of years. It's a living legacy from the past,” he said.

Kucyk is one of about a dozen people in North America trying to maintain and develop open-pollinated corn. “We've lost 90 per cent of the genetic diversity out there and we're doubling up here as a seed bank. We're trying to draw the best of the best of the different populations out there,” he said. He added that open-pollinated corn is more likely to have resistance to disease and be more adaptable to different weather conditions.

A higher sugar and nutrient content allows the plant to tolerate more stress.

Open-pollinated corn is not a crop for cash cropping since it will not match the yield of hybrid corn, said Kucyk. He recommended growing open-pollinated corn at 18,000 to 20,000 plants per acre, compared to the 25,000 per acre that hybrid corn can be grown. “This corn can tolerate a lot of weed population but it can't tolerate itself at too close quarters,” he said, adding that open-pollinated corn has larger leaves than hybrid corn. However, open-pollinated corn “is second to none for silage” because of its high mineral and protein content. “We're 10-20 per cent less for bushel yield but we're 10-20 per cent more in protein even with the yield differences.” he said. The protein content in open-pollinated corn is currently 12 to 13 per cent, compared to eight to nine per cent in hybrid corn, but Kucyk is attempting to raise the level to 20 per cent. This is “a monster number but it's achievable”.

“The way hybrid corn gets the yield up is at the expense of nutrition. That's why we're seeing a multi-billion dollar industry in nutritional supplements – because people are not getting it in the food.” And, because of the higher nutritional content, Kucyk said he has many anecdotal examples of farmers who have used less feed to gain greater results with their livestock. “One farmer I know was mixing feed for 28 cows, feeding 45 and still getting increased milk production, using open-pollinated corn,” he said. He also shared stories about egg producers whose hens laid larger eggs and goat farmers with increased milk production as much as 20 per cent using open-pollinated corn.

The downside of the high nutrient content is a pest problem since wildlife is more attracted to the high protein and sugar content in open-pollinated corn.

Unlike hybrid corn, open-pollinated corn cannot be patented and therefore, farmers can save the seed and replant it themselves, creating potential savings for themselves.“Farmers are being squeezed with rising energy prices and they're being asked to do more with less. Farmers are entitled to save their seed. I think we're going to see more farmers interested in open-pollinated corn. I would gladly show people how to select for seed. There's no catch to grow this corn – just a lot of hard work,” he said.

– reprinted with permission from Seaforth Huron Expositor 9/10/04 (slightly edited)

#224: September 2004 TOC
Open-Pollinated Corn: an article by Susan Hundertmark on the positive experience of an Ontario farmer with open-pollinated corn
Genetic Engineering not needed: a new wheat variety resistant to sawfly - and non GMO
Look what it costs to buy a lobbyist: $800,000 a year for the president of BIO
Loblaw: Canada's largest foods distributor
Eating At Home: a report on the Sorrento Gathering of the BC Food Systems Network
Moral Imperative?: two priests reject the Vatican's position that GMOs will feed the hungry
Organic Action Delayed: the court case of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate against Monsanto et al has been delayed again
Change of Heart: Prominent academic GM supporter has reconsidered the evidence
Cargill and Monsanto in Argentina: new strategies to control the soy production
One World. One Fry. - McCain's new slogan