Feb. 28, 2008, a red-letter day for modern corn production, also marked what may be the National Corn Growers Association’s greatest research achievement to date.
It was the day scientists from Washington University’s Genome Research Center announced the completion of a working draft of the corn genome – a breakthrough expected to accelerate the production of new corn hybrids, allow researchers to develop better varieties without using genetic modification, and exploit corn’s exceptional diversity.
Fifty years ago, NCGA’s leading role in such a multi-year effort would have been as hard to imagine as the gene mapping technology itself.
Scientific research is both time-consuming and expensive, and in its early days, NCGA lacked the resources to pursue serious research.
Only after 1977, when the first state corn checkoffs were established, did the outlook for better research funding begin to change, but with smaller corn crops (just 6.5 billion bushels in 1977), checkoff collection rates as low as one-tenth cent per bushel, and the competition among projects for scarce dollars, progress was slow.
It wasn’t until 1979 that NCGA received its first checkoff donation -- $4,000 from the Corn Growers Association of North Carolina. Not surprisingly, NCGA’s early research efforts were modest and its ability to leverage producer dollars into a large research investment was limited.
An important research development was the National Corn Utilization Project, cosponsored by Funk Seeds International, which evolved into the first Corn Utilization & Technology Conference in 1996.
Held every other year, the CUTC filled a need no one else had addressed. Today it has grown into a premier event in the corn industry, increasingly recognized as an important international forum for growers, scientists, agribusiness, and international experts to exchange ideas and learn the latest developments in corn research and technology.
For NCGA, which couldn’t invest the millions of dollars typical of corporate research budgets, it was just one example of building a meaningful research program by coordinating with partners.
“When I got involved [in research] the focus was through the universities,” remembers Iowan Vic Miller. “We would send our requests for proposals to the land grant schools, the big state universities with an ag-related focus.
“At the start, we paid a lot of professors’ salaries without getting a large reward. The research wasn’t focused on things that moved the ball for production agriculture.”
Even so, some projects delivered important benefits. NCGA funded research on controlling aflatoxin, for example. Another success was an NCGA-backed review of the scientific research on ethanol and air pollution that provided crucial evidence for a California court case challenging ethanol’s use in oxygenated fuel.
As funding resources increased and grower leaders developed more experience targeting research efforts, the NCGA research program expanded into more projects that supported grower initiatives like ethanol.
By the time Gene Fynboh, a Minnesota grower, got involved, much of the research emphasis was ethanol-related.
“I got involved because I didn’t like the price of corn,” Fynboh recalls, “I was looking to get more control over our destiny by adding value to the crop. That was about the time the Minnesota Corn Processors established a grower-owned wet mill, and it piqued my curiosity because it was farmers taking control of their own product. We could process it to make it more valuable.
“In research we were looking at efficiencies [with ethanol] and some pilot projects in fractionation,” Fynboh remembers. “It was an idea that had to be explored and it became the basis of the research – learning what it took to process corn for its best values.”
By the 1990s, NCGA research was becoming more strategic.
“Everybody began to realize that none of us has enough money to compete with GM, Kellogg, ADM, the truly large players in production agriculture,” Miller tells. “We were looking for nuggets and not finding them. We began to shift focus from strictly university research into the commercial structure.”
What NCGA did have was its lobbying strength. Miller cites one example: “It became evident to Pacific Northwest Labs that it was important to have NCGA on board with a project. The association was valuable because NCGA could build government support for research. That led to us rolling into commercial alliances.”
In 1997, NCGA spearheaded the creation of a major plant genome research effort. This effort led to the corn genome mapping project, which brought together the National Science Foundation (NSF), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Energy (DOE) and NCGA for a multi-year campaign starting in 2005.
“We contributed to that effort because everybody understood that we were all in this together and we have to do what would benefit everybody. We could still carve out our own little piece [of research] at the state level, but our piece would be more valuable if we worked together on the big effort,” Miller remembers.
Pam Johnson, research committee chair at the time, found herself speaking at an international maize genetics conference and testifying before congressional committees to help decision makers understand what sequencing the corn genome could mean for farmers.
“You need to connect the people in the laboratory with the people who will benefit from the research,” says Johnson, now NCGA first vice president. “It opened my eyes to what it takes to get funding for science.”
By the time the draft genome sequence was released in February 2008, the Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP) had reached a budget of more than $101 million in public and private funding.
“It was a historic event, and one of the biggest things to happen to our industry,” says Johnson. “Now we can take everything we know about growing corn and lay it on top of this gene map and understand our data – that’s how big this is.
“The genome is just the beginning of good things to come,” she concludes. “I’ve been to plant genome conferences each year with people from around the world, and when we look at what nine billion people will need in 2050, this research will help corn growers participate in supplying those needs.”
NCGA’s support of plant genomics continues as the work evolves from information to application. The Research and Business Development Action Team is currently focusing on making the wealth of genetics and genomics data available through its support of the Maize Genome Database and establishing a National Agricultural Genotyping Center. Both efforts will help to translate scientific discoveries into solutions for production agriculture, food safety, functional foods, bioenergy and national security.”