Richard Pratt is standing in a field at New Mexico State University's Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center south of Las Cruces talking about his corn research. Two things are worth mentioning. One is that there's not a cornstalk in sight. The other is that Pratt, as head of the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, has time for research.
The absence of corn is easy to explain. When it's February in southern New Mexico, all corn has been harvested. The particular plot Pratt is standing in is greening up with hairy vetch, a winter cover crop rotated in as part of that field's three-year transition from traditional agriculture to certified organic status.
Finding time for research—as busy as Pratt is with administrative responsibilities—is not easy but essential. He brought a large grant with him when he moved to NMSU from Ohio State University and is committed to expanding the project in his new Western environment.
Pratt's research at Leyendecker and other NMSU agricultural science centers is part of a larger project titled" "Strengthening Public Corn Breeding to Ensure Organic Farmers' Access to Elite Cultivars."
The organic corn breeding project involves half-a-dozen researchers in several states and Puerto Rico. The team evaluates existing varieties of organic corn for viability in varied climates, and develops new and better varieties through traditional breeding.
They are not doing their organic corn trials for a large seed company. Such companies currently have little interest in funding development of specialty crops like organic corn, Pratt says; they tend to focus on varieties that will appeal to large numbers of producers.