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.


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.



Boning up on precision ag: Images from Farm Technology Days

If you wanted to get up to speed on precision agriculture, Wisconsin Farm Technology Days was a good place to start. That was Dean Kate VandenBosch’s focus when she spent last Thursday at WFTD 2014. The three-day event is the state’s big all-agriculture trade show.

“Everywhere I go, I’m hearing about new innovations involving remote sensing being used for different applications looking at different parameters,” she says. “The equipment companies are interested, the seed and biotech companies are interested. Our faculty are bringing it up, and of course so are the growers.

“It’s an exciting time and changes are coming very fast. I wanted to increase my knowledge base, and Farm Technology Days was a great place to do it. There were lots of things going on in that area and I had a wonderful tour guide: Brian Luck was ready to show me around.”

Among the wide variety of precision ag technologies being demonstrated at the show was a moisture sensor system being developed by a CALS team than includes John Panuska in biological systems engineering.

Images: A great day at the State Fair

CALS was well represented at last Wednesday’s UW-Madison Day at the Wisconsin State Fair. Here are a few of our favorite images that capture the interactions CALS units had with fair-goers. To see more from the fair that event and and many others of CALS people and activities, go to the CALS Flickr page.


CALS forest science grads fighting Washington State wildfires

Three recent forest science graduates from CALS are participating in the massive effort to fight Washington State’s wildfires, which are the largest in the state’s history. Hillary Grabner, BS’13, and Ricky Keller, BS’12, (who met and fell for each other while undergraduates at CALS, pictured together above) and Tim Ketelboeter, BS’11, got involved through their work for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

The trio were assigned to the Carlton Complex fire. Details about the fire and their working conditions are described in a Wisconsin State Journal article. The experience isn’t for the faint of heart. Here’s an excerpt:

The Carlton Complex fire is a collection of four fires burning in north-central Washington since July 14. Lightning strikes are believed to have caused the fires, which spread quickly in the first week, taking advantage of drought conditions, low humidity and high winds. [...]

The crews live in tents, work up to 16 hours a day — some work overnight — and must traverse rocky, hilly terrain while carrying heavy cargo and equipment.

The photos below, shared by Ricky, show some of the devastation from the fire, plus the tent camp where the firefighters sleep:




Enticing new doctors into a rural practice

If you want an example of the success of a new effort to get more physicians into rural communities, look at CALS biochemistry grad Gena Cooper, suggests Robert Golden, Dean of the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. Golden describes Cooper in a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel op-ed column describing the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine, which selects medical students who are most likely to pursue rural practice.

Here’s an excerpt:

Gena grew up on a farm in Mukwonago. After college, Gena was selected to serve as “Alice in Dairyland,” a highly visible spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. Gena’s determination to become a rural doctor grew out of her experience trailing her town’s surgeon, a family friend, on his hospital rounds. Gena was struck by the array of situations the doctor encountered, and his enormous impact on the lives of his patients. She learned about WARM right at its inception from an agriculture industry newspaper. She was excited about the prospect of completing clinical rotations in rural settings, and the WARM program recognized that Gena was precisely the type of student we wanted.

Like most WARM graduates to date, Gena matched in a primary care (pediatrics) residency program. She and her husband own a 120-head dairy cow farm in Columbus, and when she completes her residency training next year, she plans to practice in a similar community.

Report from Sturgeon Bay: Hail, rain, shredded crops

“If I took all the hail storms I’ve seen in my life and put them into one storm, that’s what we had.”

The night of Monday, July 14 was a tough one at the college’s Peninsular Ag Research Station near Sturgeon Bay.

“We had 4–6 inches of hail and over three inches of rain last night,” superintendnet Matt Stasiak said in an email the next morning. “All crops in a 1.5 x 2-mile swath are a complete loss.”

“If I took all the hail storms I’ve seen in my life and put them into one storm, that’s what we had,” Stasiak told the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday. With the exception of some potato plants in greenhouses, “everything at the research station is a loss,” he says.


Photos: Matt Stasiak


Making a film on the roots of corn

Millions of high school and college biology students could soon get a look at geneticist John Doebley’s research related to the domestication of corn. A film crew from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was on campus last week to gather footage in Doebley’s lab, and they’ll be back in September to shoot in his field plots. The film will be shown in high school AP biology classes and college intro biology classes.

“We think that the domestication of corn is a terrific story, combining genetics with anthropology and archeology, all the better when it concerns the roots of a modern commodity that’s virtually taken over the world,” says Dennis Liu, an educator with HHMI’s Educational Media Group.

Liu’s group produces short science films, along with supplements designed to facilitate using them for formal science education and to extend the learning beyond what can be covered in the film itself.

“We pride outselves…on presenting research with scientific fidelity but also in a way that is engaging for students,” Liu says. He estimates the audience for the HHMI films to be well over 5 million students.

Hosting a film crew wasn’t that big a deal, says Doebley. “This is my 5th science film so same-old story.  Previously, I had crews from Germany and Japan in my Minnesota Lab, and crews from Portugal and NSF in my UW lab.”

As seen on TV: Biochem alum Jeff Vinokur – a.k.a. the Dancing Scientist – performs on national shows

After taking some time to get his graduate research project up and running at UCLA, CALS biochemistry alumnus Jeffrey Vinokur – a.k.a. The Dancing Scientist – is back onstage. Vinokur, BS’12, who we featured in Grow magazine back in Summer 2011, recently brought his hip-hop laboratory extravaganza to The Today Show on NBC, The View on ABC and The Queen Latifah Show on CBS.

According to Vinokur, this outreach work – along with his research – helped him snag a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award this year.


An environmental history of the Babcock Hall Dairy Store

Most people who visit the Babcock Hall dairy store for the first time come out with a generous serving of ice cream and a hankering for more of the same. Bethany Laursen came out with that and something more: An idea for a research project on landscape governance.* Or to put it in less academic terms: A history of how this icon of cool and sweet ended up on the campus of a major research university. Her article, “An Environmental History of the Babcock Hall Dairy Store,” was published earlier this year in the Wisconsin Magazine of History and is now available online. It’s not just a history of the Babcock store itself. It’s a history of dairy product sales on campus that begins with the arrival of ag chemist Stephen Babock in Madison in 1887.

“The Dairy Store is perhaps the most obvious example on campus of the productive tension inherent in the Wisconsin Idea between industry and education, elite privilege and service, profit and not-for-profit,” says Laursen, who last May received an M.S. in Environment and Resources and Forestry, advised by Mark Rickenbach and Gary Green.

“I hoped by publishing this story, when readers are standing in line at the Dairy Store, it would make us think a little more reflectively on how we are contributing to the Wisconsin Idea today,” she says. “Are we still walking the line appropriately and harnessing that productive tension?“

For most of us, those will be second thoughts—the ones we’ll have after we’ve wrestled with whether to go with Mocha Macchiato or Union Utopia or give it up and have a scoop of each.


Landscape governance refers to the set of rules, norms, and strategies that describe how people make decisions about a landscape.

New life for a grand old campus tree


Emmett S. Goff

The Goff family invites you to sit on a branch of their family tree. They were on campus last Thursday to present the horticulture department with a spectacular bench crafted from a fallen portion of the historic larch named after their forbear, Emmett S. Goff, the UW’s first professor of horticulture and one of CALS original faculty members. The wood had been salvaged when the world famous geotropic Goff Larch lost a major limb during a winter storm in 2007.

With the Goffs’ generous financial support, Madison artist Aaron Laux bult the bench, using the living portion of the tree as inspiration for the design. Laux said he was “honored to work on a project that memorialized Goff in a place where it will be appreciated by so many people for so many years.”


Charlie Goff (MBA’75), great grandson of Emmett), Carson Goff (great great grandson) and Beverly Goff. Photos by Rebecca Bock.


Ken, Samuel, Wally, Jamie and Bea Jackson (great granddaughter of Emmett)

The bench was unveiled at the Department of Horticulture’s annual garden party, which was also a celebration of the department’s 125th anniversary, held in the Allen Centennial Gardens, where the surviving portion of the Goff Larch still grows. The family members also participated in a ceremonial “planting” of a new larch (it was too wet for a real planting) on the bank of the garden’s newly reconstructed pond.