Kyle and Brock Yutzy and Jon Ginger, from West Jefferson won the Ohio Corn & Wheat annual Tallest Stalk Contest in 2016.

Tall tales, taller corn

Remember Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack, and his massive sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox? You younger readers may have to Google them. Anyway, Paul and Babe were bigger than life in American and Canadian folklore.

As I reminisce reading years ago about Paul’s exploits, I ponder — now as a vet who has provided nutritional advice to cattle and swine producers — what kind of nutritional program would be required for an ox of Babe’s legendary mass? 

I recently discovered that the answer could lie in the town of Totontepec in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve never visited there, though I’ve been in Mexico numerous times.

If there’s any place on earth that could satisfy Babe’s outsized nutritional demands, it’s got to be Totontepec. There they have a variety of corn that the locals call olotón. It’s been grown in the mountainous Totontepec region for a couple thousand years. And I’m not making this up: These corn plants grow 18 to 20 feet tall, in spite of the area’s low-fertility, rocky soil.

Here is the scoop, as reported in Yale Environment 360, published by the Yale School of the Environment. In 1979 a naturalist, Tom Hallberg, found these gigantic corn plants and was amazed (no pun intended—well, maybe). These plants were growing in rocky soil and reached nearly 20 feet in the air, from ground to tassel. Further investigation indicated that the indigenous farmers used no fertilizer to grow the corn.

I suspect agricultural experts were skeptical of Hallberg’s story when he returned from his visit to Totontepec. They probably thought he had been drinking the local corn squeezings. It took Hallberg 17 years to obtain financing to organize a return trip to Totontepec for him and his team to further investigate this Paul Bunyanesque corn.

A microbiologist, Ronald Ferrera-Cerrato, accompanied the group on this trip. The group’s most notable discovery this time around was that the olotón plants had what appeared to be auxiliary roots at their base, just above ground. These “roots,” though, didn’t tap into the ground at the base of corn plants as most U.S. farmers would expect. These aerial roots, instead, dripped a thick gelatinous substance around the base of the plant.

Ferrara-Cerrato took samples of this substance back to his microbiology lab outside Mexico City. He discovered that it contained bacteria, which appeared to extract nitrogen from the air so that the sap dripping from the aerial roots could enrich the soil around each olotón plant with nitrogen.

Eureka! The scientists had discovered that olotón plants have nitrogen-fixing bacteria like legume crops so that they require no external nitrogen fertilization. For years, agrarian experts have known that alfalfa, clover and other food crops, such as peas and green beans, require no nitrogen fertilization once they have been planted, taken root and sprouted. In the case of legumes, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are incorporated into the root system. If this could also be accomplished with corn, what a discovery! Nitrogen fertilization is the most expensive portion of a corn farmer’s fertilization program.

Two answers are still needed. Can olotón genes be adapted to the kind of high-yield corn varieties than American farmers plant? And if so, who would own the patents once the final details of olotón gene modification are determined? Mexican authorities are insisting they be included in the discussion for ownership rights.

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One comment

  1. Congrats Kyle and Brock ! I remember you guys asking for seed after 2013. Glad to see you did good with it.

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