'Who Gets Kissed?' Sweet Corn

Title'Who Gets Kissed?' Sweet Corn



Region(s)Northern U.S.



An open-pollinated sweet corn variety with good cold soil germination and vigor with great flavor, sweetness, standability, resistance to common rust and corn smut, and yield large, well-filled ears.

Farm Partner(s)

Organic Farming Works


High Mowing Organic Seeds


After decades of organic farming in Minnesota, Martin Diffley’s need for varieties bred for organic agriculture deepened. Martin was busy growing and marketing his produce in the twin cities, but he had hoped and dreamed of working with a group of plant breeders to develop an open pollinated organic sweet corn that would better serve his farm and be released with open source principles. The participatory sweet corn breeding project Martin was dreaming of began to form in 2007.


Martin was describing the traits that are important in organic sweet corn production while taking John Navazio of Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) on a tour around Gardens of Eagan at the peak of the summer season in August. He was explaining his frustration with sweet corn seed that lacked vigor and tolerance to cool wet soils that often occurred at the time of planting in late spring in Minnesota. Martin had noticed a decline in the vigor of the seed of most of the sugary enhanced (se) varieties he was growing over the past decade. This limited his choices as an organic sweet corn grower who did not have the option of using the conventional fungicide seed treatments to protect his seed if the spring planting season turned cool and excessively wet. John explained to Martin that Bill Tracy, the sweet corn breeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had created several se breeding populations that he had been selecting for their ability to germinate under cool temperatures. John suggested that they ask Bill for seed of these populations to find out if it would perform better under the cool soil conditions of spring than the se hybrids that Martin was currently growing. If Bill’s populations showed promise over the existing commercial hybrids then OSA would seek funding to initiate a breeding project in collaboration with Bill’s breeding program.


When John and Martin suggested this plan to Bill, he immediately embraced it and promised limited funding from his program and help and project coordination from his then graduate student Jared Zystro (now of OSA). OSA promised pro-bono assistance in the evaluation and bite test of the trials that were led by Jared, until further funding could be procured. The initial participatory breeding work for this project would be a team effort between Martin, Jared, John, and Bill.


After seven years of participatory breeding, ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ will become commercially available in the fall of 2015 through High Mowing Organic Seeds. This is the first release in a series of open-pollinated sweet corn varieties being developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in collaboration with organic farmer Martin Diffley and researchers at Organic Seed Alliance.



Breeding Needs and Goals

The goal of this breeding project started when Martin Diffley, an organic farmer in Minnesota, was in search of an organic sweet corn variety with vigor and tolerance to cool wet soils. This sparked the formation of the participatory project team comprised of Martin, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Organic Seed Alliance that set out to develop an open-pollinated sweet corn variety with good cold soil germination and vigor with great flavor, sweetness, standability, resistance to common rust and corn smut, and yield large, well-filled ears.



Breeding Methods and Timeline

In 2008, Jared planted over a hundred breeding plots at Gardens of Eagan from Bill’s cold tolerant se populations. Each plot was unique; each planted with seed from what are known to plant breeders as “families.” Martin, John, Jared, and Bill rated these families throughout the season for early plant vigor, disease resistance, and flavor. The team found many families where the sweet corn fell short for one reason or another, but they also found a small fraction of the families where the corn was vigorous, disease resistance, and flavorful. That winter, seed from the best families was sent to the southern hemisphere. There, Bill made crosses between the best families and generated hundreds of new families to continue the cycle in 2009.


In 2009, the Organic Farming Research Foundation provided funding for another year of breeding at Martin’s farm. Jared left graduate school for a position with OSA and Adrienne Shelton, another graduate student of Bill’s, took over coordinating the project. Adrienne, along with the rest of the team, evaluated the new sweet corn families planted at Martin’s, and selected the best of them to be crossed together the following winter in an off-season nursery. This incremental process of selection and crossing gradually improved the quality of the population each year. This process continued for four more years, supported by the USDA Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI). In 2013, Adrienne, John, Jared, Martin, and Bill decided that the population was ready to release to farmers as a variety that would later be named ‘Who Gets Kissed?’. It is a high quality se type sweet corn, with moderate cold-soil tolerance and disease resistance. Best of all, it is open-pollinated, so that farmers can save their own seed and continue the process of improvement that began on Martin’s farm.



Commercial Release

‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn will become commercially available in the fall of 2014 and can be found here. The intent of the sweet corn breeding team was to release the new variety in the public domain while garnering financial return to support ongoing organic breeding efforts. We believe that farmers have the right to save their own seed and that intellectual property (IP) protections should not restrict research and development efforts that deliver much needed crop improvement. The team also believes it is possible to encourage innovation and receive fair returns on investments without compromising farmers and breeders rights.


The sweet corn team collectively chose to make ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ available through High Mowing Organic Seeds because of their dedication to serve organic farmers, willingness to purchase enough seed to support production, and commitment to return a percent of their profits (royalties) to support ongoing breeding efforts.


‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn will be released without a patent or Plant Variety Protection (PVP). Instead, the variety will be released under a licensing agreement that adheres to the principles of fairness, open access to genetics, and reward for innovation. Farmers are free to save seed, breeders are free to breed with the new variety, and High Mowing Organic Seeds will commercialize the variety ensuring it is broadly accessible to organic sweet corn growers. A percentage of seed sales will be returned to the breeding team, including the farmer breeder, to support ongoing organic plant breeding efforts. This arrangement can serve as an example for other breeding programs and cultivar releases as a model for economically supporting organic plant breeding.




Funding for the sweet corn project included grants from the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the USDA Organic Research and Education Initiative funded Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC).

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