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On the track of not-so-sweet corn

You might wonder why Bill Tracy bothers to breed new varieties of sweet corn. It’s already unbelievably tender and crisp and supersweet. We just need more of what we’ve got, right?

Not really, says Tracy, chair of the UW-Madison agronomy department, who has been breeding sweet corn since the 1980s. There’s a lot of things besides sweetness to worry about. And in fact, sweetness is something a lot of people would like less of.

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Bill Tracy’s sweet corn team is in the midst of harvesting and sorting what they’ve collected from variety trials at the West Madison and Arlington Ag Research Stations.

“Modern sweet corn has excellent eating quality, flavorful and tender​. We are always looking to make improvements to eating quality but the corn is probably sweet enough,” says Tracy. “We want to improve disease resistance, weed competitiveness, shelf life, and other traits to make it easier to grow and provide better more consistent quality for the consumers.”

“We are also looking at developing non-sweet vegetable corns for culinary uses. Many chefs and cooks feel modern sweet corn is too sweet for many recipes. In 2014, we began new efforts in developing non-sweet vegetable corns. We have gathered heirloom sugary sweet corns that are prized for their corny flavor. We have also searched world collections for starchy corns that have been bred for eating quality when harvested green. We have Chilean choclos that will be tested by chefs in Madison this summer and fall. Since Chile has a similar growing condition to Wisconsin the choclos are well adapted here.”

And the perfect ear of fresh corn is only part of the equation. Sweet corn processors have very different needs. Processing corns must be very disease resistant and high yielding (tons per acre).

“They must also have very high recovery—number of cases of product per ton, which is affected by kernel-to-cob ratio. Longer kernels and thinner cobs which equals higher recovery.

cornharvest2“They also cannot be too tender because they need to withstand mechanical harvesting and processing. Fresh corn sold through grocery stores needs long holding capacity or shelf life.”

Wisconsin ranks third in the nation for sweet corn production (Minnesota is first) and 13th for fresh corn (Florida is no. 1), according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.