Lindsey du Toit, vegetable seed pathologist at Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon, is a co-primary investigator on a $7.3 million, four-year grant to find the genetic traits that will make sweet corn taste better, last longer and grow better across the nation.
The project is funded by the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, led by scientists at the University of Florida, and includes research at Iowa State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the USDA.
Demand for fresh market and frozen corn is increasing, and breeders need to be able to provide the best sweet corn seed possible as part of federal campaigns to encourage Americans to eat enough vegetables.
“Thanks to ideal growing conditions, sweet corn crops in the Pacific Northwest out-yield crops in the Midwest and Southeast,” du Toit said. This year, a record 90,000 acres of sweet corn were planted in Washington state, including 15,000 acres for fresh-market corn. In 2016, Washington’s organic sweet corn crop made up 55 percent of all certified-organic acres planted with sweet corn in the U.S.
Carrie Wohleb and Tim Waters, WSU Extension Educators in the Columbia Basin, have performed trials for a number of years on agronomic practices and seed treatments to control early season seedling blights.
“Despite the scale of sweet corn production in Washington, however, there has been little other research on sweet corn diseases and pests in this state,” said du Toit.
Sweet corn breeders leading the SCRI project invited her to participate in the project to represent Pacific Northwest production, and screen for tolerance in sweet corn germplasm to cool spring planting conditions and resistance to seedling blights. Participating in this grant lets du Toit return to the roots of her graduate studies at the University of Illinois, where her doctoral dissertation was on common smut of sweet corn, a fungal disease.
To get started on finding the best genetic traits, scientists will screen existing sweet corn lines, to find genes that, among other things, help corn grow right after planting, helping organic farmers. While researching ways to defeat pests, scientists also seek genetic traits that make corn last longer on grocery store shelves and require less pesticide use.