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New sweet corn variety for organic farmers hits marketplace

When the time comes for Wisconsin’s organic farmers to decide which crops to plant next year, they’ll have a tasty new variety of sweet corn—one with a particularly sweet name—among their choices.

The new variety, called ‘Who Gets Kissed?,’ is named in honor of a game played at corn husking bees of old, when communities gathered to husk corn together, while enjoying other fun activities such as dancing. Corn was much more genetically diverse back then, and when a person found an ear with all red kernels, known as a “pokeberry ear,” they could choose one person among the group to kiss.

The new variety, which has yellow and white kernels, is the first in a series of organic, open-pollinated sweet corn releases being developed through a participatory plant breeding project—involving farmers and professional breeders—led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA).

“Our approach to plant breeding is what sets ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ apart from other sweet corn varieties in the marketplace,” says Micaela Colley, executive director of OSA, a non-profit involved in the development and stewardship of agricultural seed. “‘Who Gets Kissed?’ was not only bred under organic farming conditions, but organic farmers were equal partners in the breeding effort.”

The story of the new variety’s development starts with Minnesota farmer Martin Diffley. Diffley couldn’t find an organic sweet corn variety with adequate vigor that tolerated his farm’s cool soils. He approached John Navazio, OSA’s senior scientist at the time, who put him in touch with UW-Madison sweet corn breeder Bill Tracy, professor and chair of the university’s Department of Agronomy. Tracy was already selecting for cool soil emergence in sweet corn, and a collaboration emerged.

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Bill Tracy with an ear of corn. Photo courtesy of Organic Seed Alliance. 

After nearly seven years of effort, the project has yielded ‘Who Gets Kissed?,’ an open-pollinated sweet corn variety with superior flavor and sweetness that yields well, tolerates cool soils, and is resistant to common rust and corn smut.

“Most of the sweet corn varieties in the marketplace that demonstrate similar traits are hybrids,” says a UW-Madison graduate student Adrienne Shelton, a member of Tracy’s lab. “Hybrids are developed to be genetically uniform, where the ears are the same color and same size, and they mature at the same time. ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ has similar traits, but was developed for organic growers who appreciate a more diverse, open-pollinated sweet corn.”

“And because it’s open-pollinated,” she adds, “growers are encouraged to save and select seed from their harvests to adapt the variety to their own local conditions and market needs.”

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Plant breeders John Navazio, Jared Zystro, Adrienne Shelton and Bill Tracy. Photo courtesy of Tom Stearns. 

The new variety is available for purchase through High Mowing Organic Seeds.

“‘Who Gets Kissed?’ is an example of the amazing results that can be achieved in open-pollinated and collaborative breeding, where the consumer, farmer, breeder, seed grower and all other stakeholders are involved,” says Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds. “Innovative varieties with a dynamic process like this connect the dots and foster a deeper engagement in developing the food system of the future.”

This organic sweet corn breeding project was funded in part by the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative.

For more information, contact: Adrienne Shelton, University of Wisconsin-Madison, acshelton@wisc.edu; Martin Diffley, Organic Farming Works, (651) 895-3919, martin@organicfarmingworks.com; or Kristina Hubbard, Organic Seed Alliance, (406) 544-8946, kristina@seedalliance.org.