Thirty one years ago I started growing rare lines of cold hardy northern corn for my family's grain in Montana. Modern corn wouldn't mature in the mountains where I lived, so I had to work with heirloom Native corns. I learned that about 12 lines of Mandan Indian corn had been saved in the national seed bank, but those lines appear somewhat inbred. I began a search for corn still kept alive by Indian families and descendants of homesteaders. After years of evaluation and crossing I eventually created a large and diverse gene pool. I exposed this corn to the severe stress of my Montana home, selecting only the hardiest to breed from. I called this Painted Mountain Corn.
Photo: Dave showing select ears of Painted Mountain from a field in Montana.
This corn breeding became the project my soul needed to be completed. I was determined to utilize all the corns still existing from the frontier, before they disappeared, to select the most cold and drought hardy corn in the world, and to make it more productive. My background in agriculture and genetics was a big start. However, I also worked with and learned from all the corn breeders of that era, both in universities and big seed companies. A few years into the project I became aware that I was the only person breeding with this western germplasm for the west.
My project did not have a foreseeable commercial market, but I was encouraged by everyone to keep going. Everyone agreed that this unique gene pool of corn would someday be valuable to our nation and the world as a source of breeding material. Commercial corn has it's ancestry in the East where it is warmer and damper. They have more organic matter and nitrogen in the soil there. The West is quite different.
About ten years ago I became convinced of the importance of this project and began dedicating most of my life to it. Most of my work of breeding and genetic advancement had no immediate market, and so I lived on a shoestring even with sales of seed to the decorative corn market. I got lots of praise for the value of this genetic rescue work, and everyone said I deserved funding. Five years ago I realized that many indigenous peoples of the world, especially mountain people, were starving and many had to eat their stock seed. Many ancient strains of high elevation corn were lost forever. My commitment to this work increased further with positive reports of Painted Mountain successes in Korea and Siberia . I call this project Seed We Need.
Painted Mountain is not a hybrid variety, it is an open pollinated genepool. It is descended from over 70 Native corns rescued from Indians and homesteaders who lived in the harshest climates of the Northern Rockies and Great Plains regions of the US and Canada. Some of the ancestors of Painted Mountain are now extinct, and live on only in this gene pool. This genetic diversity is readily seen in the amazing range of colors in the plants and kernels. It also means that Painted Mountain can be adapted to new areas and further selected for better performance.
Photo: Dave Christensen (in red-lined jacket) consults with agronomists and missionaries in North Korea about how to grow and select Painted Mountain corn.
Corn originated in warm and wet tropical environments. Commercial corn gets most it's genes from the southern and eastern parts of the United States . Those are not generally useful to us in high desert climates. Now I do not claim that Painted Mountain is the best corn for every region, but it can be taken higher up the mountains than most corn you have ever seen. The cob is "grain on a handle" and very easy to harvest by hand, making it a useful crop for poor mountain farmers. Modern breeding has created wonderful commercial corns, but not for the marginal farming regions of the world like mine.
Commercial hybrids were largely developed to produce high yields of corn for industrial purposes and animal feed. In other words, they produce calories, not nutrition. Commercial hybrids are usually low in protein, minerals and micronutrients. They were not created to sustain human life and seed saving is rarely worth the effort with the inbreeding depression that is seen when you do. Painted Mountain has protein levels higher than most commercial corn. The soft, starchy kernels are easily ground or can be made into hominy or simply toasted and eaten directly. The colorful kernels, which make picking each ear a surprise and delight, are also high in anthocyanins which are valuable antioxidants in human nutrition. Montana Morado Maize is my special dark purple line that has more anthocyanins than blueberries! Painted Mountain's highly efficient plants produce big cobs under stress and are proving useful to farmers around the world who are struggling to produce food on worn-out soil with marginal resources.
Painted Mountain grows fast even in cold climates where other corns struggle to stay alive in early spring. It also pollinates and fills out ears during the searing heat of the dry Montana summer. It takes 90 days to mature as dry grain in my cold mountain climate, about 2-4 weeks ahead of other "90 day" corn. Some people say the Painted Mountain makes dry grain in only 70 days when taken to a warmer climate. I have received many reports of yields around 50 bu/acre and often to 60 or 70 bu.acre. This is very good for a very early corn in a stressed location. Keep in mind that the hybrid varieties often fail completely in these high stress locations. I have gotten good production reports from every part of the USA , and many parts of the world from Siberia to South Africa . Painted Mountain will grow food where many varieties will fail. F armers find it a very efficient food source if grazed by livestock right off the field. The lack of woodiness in the stalks and soft starch of the grain give it a higher digestibility to animals than other corns. The highly nutritious grain promises to have many uses for humans and farm animals.
Photo: Painted Mountain has the colors of the rainbow and the antioxidant qualities that come with those many colors. Recent research demonstrates clearly that Dave's breeding has real potential for human health.
I have spent most of my adult life creating this important gene pool of corn that is one of the most productive crops for stressed regions of the world. This primitive corn is capable of helping many more people overseas, and farmers in the western USA, but it needs continued breeding to improve it. I have developed many lines for many purposes, but I am only inching along compared to what could be done with more resources. I am a corn breeder and I would appreciate help in improving this corn to help feed more people.
Other looks at western corn:
Another Look at Mandan Maize http://www.agron.missouri.edu/mnl/72/08kutka.html
Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html
See a presentation about how Dave Christensen developed Painted Mountain Corn. [click here]
Photo:The search for more intensive colors and antioxidant concentrations continues...