The following is a guest contribution by Michael Sligh and Kelli Dale of RAFI-USA. 

Bright green corn stalks against a blue sky with fluffy white clouds.

Organic farmers across the Southeast have identified one of the major barriers to greater organic expansion in the region—a lack of regionally adapted organic seeds. You might assume that corn grown in Iowa will grow just as well in North Carolina, but different climates and soil conditions create different needs. The Southeast needs crops that get a strong start early in the season to out-compete early weeds, early dense canopy to further reduce competition, strong structures to withstand high winds, disease resistance, and high yields.

Through a grant provided by CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley’s farmer-funded Farmers Advocating For Organic (FAFO) program, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has been working with Major Goodman, a corn breeder from North Carolina State University, to develop organic seeds that are well suited for the Southeast’s unique growing conditions. Goodman is one of only a few breeders left in the public sector to screen and evaluate corn germplasm from around the world to find the best corn crosses for Southeast farmers.

Cherry and George Teague laugh and hug each other in a pasture with cows in the background.

George and Cherry Teague are North Carolina Organic Valley farmers participating in the corn breeding project with RAFI.

RAFI also worked with Organic Valley dairy farmers George Teague, his nephew Ben Miller, and Buddy and Chris Hoffner to develop the first-ever farmer-bred, organic field corn adapted for the region. Because the farmers and Goodman use traditional cross-breeding methods—not genetic engineering in a lab—this accomplishment represents seven years of organic farmer, nonprofit and plant breeder collaboration, where farmers were trained in on-farm variety selection, evaluation and double-cross breeding to produce a new, superior variety.

The new organic corn variety recently won second place in a statewide North Carolina corn competition against 31 of the best conventional corn varieties. More impressively, it took first place in yields!

The next phase for the project is to teach participating farmers to grow out the inbred corn lines for the double-crosses so that they have the “full kit” to perpetuate this important and exciting regionally adapted corn variety.

RAFI is also collaborating on breeding an improved “GMO-blocking” trait into the corn to better prevent cross-contamination. This will allow organic farmers to plant at the right time rather than planting later than their conventional neighbors (in order to prevent cross-pollination with GMO crops), thus gaining more comparative yields.

This is part of RAFI’s ongoing Breeding for Organic Production Systems work focused on developing adapted corn, soy, cotton and cover crops, and on building farm-scale pollinator habitats on North Carolina organic farms. The larger project includes the other CROPP/Organic Valley dairy farmers in North Carolina: Neill Lindley, Sam Dobson, Charlie Payne and Patrick Purcell.

RAFI has also been working to turn this project into a model farmer-owned organic seed cooperative to address ongoing farmer challenges of access to organically bred and adapted varieties in the Southeast.

In the spirit of cooperation, RAFI is encouraging these efforts to be replicated in other parts of the U.S. to address shared challenges of organic farmers across the country. We look forward to the day when organic farmers nationwide have access to organically bred seeds that are suited to their unique regional climates and that are not at risk of GMO contamination!

Organic Valley and Farmers Advocating for Organic, the nation’s only granting program funded entirely by organic farmers, are proud to support the work of RAFI and the scientists in North Carolina who are cooperating to advance organic seed research and development, and through this work, to protect the future of organic farming.