Pratt says the project is on a short timeline, by typical plant breeding standards.
"We want to have superior cultivars, or varieties, available for organic producers a few years from now," he says. "So it's a two-generation-a-year program, and it is also a very cooperative program, with other universities and independent breeders, and also the USDA Agricultural Research Service."
In addition to the corn he grew at Leyendecker, Pratt has 50 varieties of organic corn in test plots at NMSU's Agricultural Center at Farmington. The research involves tracking each variety's average yield, moisture content, bushel weight, plant and ear height, number of plants per acre, and the days to plant maturity. Tracking these factors will help researchers decide which varieties to cross with each other, as they work to develop new cultivars that meet growers' needs and are better suited to particular growing environments.
Two blue varieties
For the nationwide niche market for blue corn, a heritage crop for New Mexicans, Pratt has been working with two varieties at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas: "Ohio Blue," developed at Ohio State University while he was there, and a variety dubbed "Los Lunas Blue," which originated at Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.
Project goals are much broader than making a number of tested cultivars available for growers in a few years. The researchers hope to develop a "sustainable corn breeding effort" that will continue beyond the timeframe of this particular grant. Part of that involves building a large network of like-minded organic farmers, seed companies and buyers to pool their efforts in advancing organic corn production. Through this project and the U.S. Testing Network, related research is being conducted at about 30 sites in 20 states.
Making the research methods and results widely available is another goal of this project, and one that is solidly in the tradition of land-grant universities like NMSU.
Pratt and colleagues put in 9-hour days tending corn plants at the winter nursery in Puerto Rico. They did crosses to each other's most promising female parent for hybrid production.
"We help each other in the nursery, and the experience of working together also develops a sense of commitment to the overall project."