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What's In Store For Our Food Systems (And the Smart Crops That Matter)

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In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

One of the greatest joys of shopping at the farmers market is coming across extraordinary varieties of produce—gorgeous purple carrots, verdant Romanesco, crisp Ginger Gold apples. The biodiversity found at the market, and in some grocery stores, translates to deliciousness on the plate. But more importantly, it also translates to healthier fields and a stronger, more robust food system. 

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That’s where Professor Bill Tracy comes in. For more than three decades, the University of Wisconsin-Madison agronomy professor has worked as a breeder of new and diverse sweet corn varieties. And for the past 15 years, he has turned much of his focus toward organic farming, finding ways to breed more resilient varieties of organic sweet corn. 

Photo by Bobbi Lin

“My earliest memories include plants,” says Tracy. He recalls walking, as a toddler, into the garden courtyard of a local sandwich shop and being surrounded by giant sunflowers and vibrant tomato plants. “It felt like Dorothy entering Oz.”

These early experiences tracked with him through his schooling, as he studied agriculture and plant genetics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where, thanks to a serendipitous phone call from a professor, he ended up as a graduate student focused on sweet corn breeding. “From the get-go, I fell in love,” he says. “I was so happy being out in the field, studying the genetic diversity of corn.”

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Not much has changed. Today, Tracy is the chair of Wisconsin-Madison’s agronomy department. In between teaching courses, advising students, and working in the lab, he spends lots of time in the fields developing new crop varieties using classical cross-breeding methods (as opposed to genetic modification). Introducing crops to the market with improved flavor is of course among his goals, but sustainability is also paramount. “We are interested in finding ways to make sweet corn more competitive with weeds and more resistant to insects,” he says.

Tracy and his team of graduate students have already introduced five new sweet corn cultivars bred for organic growing conditions. They partner closely with regional farmers, growing trial crops on their fields and incorporating their feedback. Together, they are expanding biodiversity within a living, breathing agricultural system, one ear of sweet corn at a time. In 2016, Tracy was named the country’s first endowed chair for organic plant breeding, the Clif Bar & Organic Valley Endowed Chair in Organic Plant Breeding. The position, in recognition of his contribution to the field, takes its name from its supporters, Organic Valley & Clif Bar, which work alongside University of Wisconsin alumni, John and Tashia Morgridge.

Tracy said his team’s sweet corn breeding aligns with similarly innovative work across the country. The larger cohort includes people like Cornell University’s organic vegetable breeder, Michael Mazourek, and Dr. Stephen Jones, who runs The Bread Lab at Washington State University, which is one part bakery and one part breeding laboratory for a wide variety of wheats and other grains.

Meanwhile, Tracy notes that overall public funding for plant breeding is in decline. Universities are pulled in many more directions financially than they were a half century ago, which means less support going toward agricultural research. And despite growing farm-to-table awareness, many consumers (let alone institutions) do not realize the important role that the seeds themselves play in that equation. In truth, says Tracy, “It’s all about the seeds.”

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Today there are few positions available for breeders developing cultivars at public educational institutions. American agriculture, meanwhile, continues to be dominated by conventional farming practices, which means hundreds of millions of acres dedicated to rows of commodity crops like soybeans and field corn (often grown for livestock consumption), and an over-reliance on pesticides. “There’s very little diversity on conventional farms today,” Tracy said. That lack of diversity creates a much more vulnerable food system for the farmers growing the crops, and for the land they grow it on. That is why, Tracy says, he has been inspired to take on more of an advocacy role over the last decade. 

From a home cook’s perspective, Tracy’s work—and the work of his colleagues—is invaluable. Consumer demand for organic produce continues to grow—so quickly, in fact, that organic agriculture cannot keep up. “Creating new varieties of sweet corn, which is my thing, is a small part of the solution,” he said. “People might think it’s crazy, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

Tags: Organic, Sweet Corn, Agronomy, Farming