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Idaho Tortillas--Meet the Seeds

These stunning beauties transformed our field into a glorious patchwork quilt of diversity and discovery and swelled our hearts to the very brim of bursting. Thank you to the corn and to all the stewards of the corn who have brought these joyous kernels of life to our field! Now that the stage is set, let's meet the actors in our little scene of this breathtaking drama that is the agricultural dance between humans and maize.... Our 2017 trials included these 24 varieties. I've included random tidbits and musings about some of the more intriguing ones.

Advent Gulch Blue The most "local" of the varieties in our trial, this is a landrace variety bred by amateur seedsman and incredible through-hiker Mike O'Brien, who in between treks on the Idaho Centennial Trail and even hiking around the entire perimeter of the state of Idaho spent more than 30 years developing this variety to suit his needs in Advent Gulch, near Cambridge.  Starting in 1977, for 10 years he saved seeds from a blue corn that only had a few cobs a year that would ripen in the short season, gradually getting more and more success until his progress plateaued. He then added in diverse Indian corns to increase the genetic diversity and then spent several more years selecting out only the blue kernels from that introduction. 10 years later he reached another plateau and brought in some Hopi blue corn seed to his population and has been stewarding the results ever since. He has kept some flour, flint, dent, and even sweet corn kernels in the population. It is incredibly cold-tolerant, able to be planted earlier than most varieties, and one of the highest yielding in our trials. A favorite of our initial tortilla tasting group, it makes a light blue tortilla.

Anasazi A variety given to us by Feathers and Horns farmer Mia Crosthwaite, who grows them in her family's garden. Ears did not produce well for us, but they were in a low-water area.              

Bloody Butcher 105 days. Supposedly this variety makes red tortilla chips, but as it was fairly low-yielding (due to a later ripening season than many of the varieties), we don't have enough for a decent-sized batch to trial. What few cobs we did get are absolutely gorgeous! An Appalachian heirloom dating back to at least 1845. Being a semi-dent, the aleurone layer is red and not just the pericarp, which suggests it might hold some promise for red tortillas....if only we could get enough of it...I'm tempted to try crossing it with Papa's Red to see if we can get an earlier-ripening strain with better color...but don't hold me to it.    

Guadalajara All-Purpose (yes, I know the sign says "Guatemalan" but that's incorrect). This variety we got from Sand Hill Preservation Center, where Glenn Drowns says he understands it's a good tortilla corn. It's supposed to be yellow and white, with occasional other colors, but we had a lot of blue in ours. In our preliminary trials, the multicolored varieties make a grey-ish, muddy colored tortillas. So if one were interested in working with this variety for tortillas, which I think is a pretty good idea as it is mid-season ripening and quite drought-tolerant in our trials, I'd recommend only planting the white and/or white and yellow kernels.    

Harmony Grain Corn From SRSC grower and landrace seedsman Joseph Lofthouse. In our trial it was incredibly drought-tolerant. Here is the description Joseph includes on his website: A union between a hybrid swarm of North American grain corns and a synthetic composite of 6 races of South American grain corns: Tuxpeno, Coastal Tropical Flint-Dent, Southern Cateto, Cuzco, Coroico, and high-altitude Andean. Harmony was developed to reunite various races of corn and to create a strong genetic base from which to conduct plant selection and breeding. Contains flint, dent, flour, pop and a small amount of sweet corn. Adapted to temperate growing conditions. Not day-length sensitive. About 85 to 115 DTM to grain stage. Selected for resistance to predation by birds and small mammals. OSSI-pledged.

Hopi Blue Another Idaho-adapted variety, this one has been growing in southern Idaho since the 1970s, when Hopi elder Thomas Banyaca gifted the corn to Suzanne Lewis and asked her to steward it. She passed the seeds along to us and we have absolutely loved growing this stunning variety. It was the first flour corn I grew, with tall, graceful plants that produce long ears. Takes a longer season to ripen than some other blues, but in my opinion it's worth the wait if you have the season length. It makes the darkest blue tortillas I've ever eaten, with a nutty, earthly flavor that will make you weep with joy.    

Hopi Turquoise We got the seeds of this variety from Sand Hill Preservation Center, who lists it as having good drought-tolerance. It was in a more well-watered place in our trials so I can't attest to that one way or the other. What I can say is that Joseph Lofthouse when he visited said it was "so Hopi." What he meant is it has lots of tillers coming up from the base so it resembles more of a shrub than a single-stalked plant. Each plant produced multiple ears with a mixture of white, blue, and turquoise seeds (some plants had yellow kernels as well). One of the highest-yielding varieties.      

Magic Manna An OSSI-pledged variety bred by Carol Deppe,  grown from seed we got from Wayne Marshall at Banbury Farm in Buhl. 85 days. Deppe bred her Manna series from Painted Mountain and selected it for flavor and cooking characteristics. Magic Manna is described in detail in Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener along with recipes. According to Deppe's notes: "Seed Saving information: Magic Manna has a white endosperm and a clear aleurone and is variable for pericarp (skin) color. Yellow and black kernels don’t belong in the variety. Very pure flour corn type. If any flinty, dent, or sweet kernels appear, cull the entire ear they are on. Ear row numbers between 8 and 12 are acceptable. All “Manna” varieties are sister* varieties and can be grown side by side in the same field. Just eat the edge row where another Manna variety is adjacent and save seed from the rest. A little gene flow between the different varieties in the Manna series is fine."  

Millennium Seed was given to us by Bevan Williams at the Mountain West Seed Summit. Bevan said he bred it out of Painted Mountain for its resilience in cold-weather climates as well as its nutritional value for livestock. It was all over the map, color-wise, and actually not quite as early as Painted Mountain, or the Papa's or Manna series. Beautiful but probably not the most practical for tortillas.          

Nebraska We found his variety to be lackluster--didn't ripen very many cobs in our season, and what did ripen was unappetizing, in that commercial dent corn kinda way. Here's what Sand Hill Preservation Center has to say about it, though..."115 days.  Plants average about 9 feet tall and have good stalk standability. Ears have good, tight husks that then become more open as they mature, decreasing the time to dry down yet protecting the ear from insect damage in the early stages. One to two 10 inch ears with 14 to 18 rows of medium yellow kernels per red cob."      

Northwestern Red Dent What a beautiful and intriguing surprise of a variety this was! It produced very well for us, with stunning, fat ears with red kernels that have an iridescent cap on the end. It was supposedly quite drought tolerant and I would attest to that. I am intrigued to try tortillas with it and will report back later. It seems to be only semi-dent.          

Oaxacan Green Dent Golly what a gorgeous plant this is! Cobs vary from having mostly kernels that are deep emerald green to almost neon green-yellow to blue-green or teal, with a few cobs tinted purple. I have eaten delicious green tortillas in Oaxaca and understand this is the variety to make them, though in our own tortilla trials they are more of a pale white-green than the deep green ones I've eaten there. The flavor is great, though, and they seem to have real promise for our area with selection for shorter season and culling the bluer ears. We got our seeds from grower Mike O'Brien who grew them for SRSC last year.    

Oneida Hominy This was the variety Chef Antonio Ortega was most excited about. It's a flour corn from the Oneida Nation with wide, flat kernels that are great for posole as well as grinding into flour. This resembles the kind of corn Chef Ortega's mom would use to make tortillas. I can attest that the variety is one of our very best for eating, both whole in posole and ground into flour for tortillas. It grows well here--I would call it a mid-season variety, perhaps 100-105 days.      

Painted Mountain The father (with many, many generations of grandmothers and fathers before!) of so many of the early-season corns, bred by Dave Christensen in Montana at 5,500 feet. He has worked tirelessly for over 40 years on the variety, selecting it out of a mix of over 70 different strains of corns. It is the earliest-ripening flour corn in North America, and produces a rainbow of long, skinny cobs on 4' tall plants. Quite drought-tolerant. It's probably my favorite plant I've ever grown, but when it comes to tortillas, as I've mentioned before, the multitude of different colors makes a muddy-colored, grey tortilla. As a side note, though, it makes a delicious cornbread with only corn flour!    

Papa's Red The Papa's series were bred out of Painted Mountain by seedsman Ed Schultz, also in Montana. Dave Christensen spoke very highly of this series, describing them as very uniform and brilliantly colored. We agree--they have all the great attributes of Painted Mountain, with the benefit of having single-color strains, which we've found makes better tortillas. Chef Ortega is especially excited about this variety, which he said almost looked fake--it's that deep red! We're worried that the color, being in the pericarp, will not transfer to the tortillas which is why I am considering taking on a life project of crossing it with Bloody Butcher and other red varieties from Michoacan that will make red tortillas. Regardless, it's absolutely stunning, on those crazy-short 4' tall, super-early Painted Mountain-esque plants. We trialed the series on the recommendation of Brad McIntyre of McIntyre Farms because his neighbor recommended it as being a good candidate for the project. We got the seed from Baker Creek heirloom seeds.  

Papa's Blue In addition to the notes made above about the red variety in the series, here is what Baker Creek seeds has to say about it: "Bred by Ed Schultz outside of Bozeman, Montana, The Papa’s Series corns all feature earliness and tolerance to cool conditions. Ed first began breeding his corns about 1985. He started with all the really short-season flour types he could lay his hands on: Mandan Red, Painted Mountain, Fiesta and others. Allowing these types to cross freely, he simply selected the earliest and best each year, for planting the next year. Then came the lengthy process of selecting single-colored ears out of the mix. Some 30 years later, the result: short plants (only to about 4’ tall) that yield very early. Surprisingly long ears—typically 8” long, running occasionally to 12”. These slim, 8-row ears grow from a narrow cob, and are very graceful and beautiful. All the Papa’s Series varieties feature a brilliantly colored exterior, enclosing a white interior comprised of a soft, white flour-type starch—excellent!"  

Papa's White See notes about the Papa's series in the Red and Blue sections above. I'm not sure if the reason some of the kernels in this variety were almost translucent was because of the variety itself or of cross-pollination with other varieties.            

Po'Suwegeh Blue We got this variety from Elizabeth Johnson at the Mountain West Seed Summit seed exchange. It is a corn from the Pojaque Pueblo, sold by Baker Creek for them. It is a lovely blue variety, reasonably well-suited to Idaho, though it makes sense that our more locally-adapted Advent Gulch blue and Hopi blue corns did better here.        

Rebellion (Cycle O)  Though not the best variety for our area, and unappetizing in that industrial sort of way, this variety is nonetheless extremely valuable. Here is what Sand Hill Preservation Center has to say about it: "115 days.  This is a new Open Pollinated variety synthesized by crossing together classic inbreds and some Open Pollinated lines from the central corn belt and beyond. Its heritage includes lines descended from Reid's Yellow Dent, Lancaster, Minnesota 13, Pride of Saline, Cateto, flints from Argentina, Iowa Stiff Stalk Synthetic, Iodent, and more. It carries the Ga1s allele from popcorn and should be more resistant to outcrossing with other dent corn, but will readily cross with popcorn and will pollinate any corn. It should not be planted near any popcorn fields. The development of this variety was carried out by Frank Kutka with support from the Organic Farmig Research Foundation and the assistance of university corn breeders. Management of this trait will be very important for seed savers and everyone is invited to learn more about the trait via this video Breeding "Organic Ready" Corn with Gametophytic Incompatability on YouTube. Frank sent us this variety to help perpetuate it this year. I must say I was completely impressed with its vigor, yield and standability. I planted it on June 4, it tasseled from August 1 to 3, and was ready to harvest by late September. Every stalk had 2 full sized ears, one stalk even had 6 ears, 3 good and 3 half sized. This is a perfect corn for the person wanting good yields and performance of a modern development. Plants averaged 8 to 9 feet tall. Deep red cob with rich golden kernels. To help further Frank's important work, we will be sending a portion of the sales back to Frank to support his projects."  

Reid's Yellow Dent This is the quintessential dent corn variety, the variety from which most modern dent corns originate. It is an heirloom variety stewarded by the Reid family from around 1847 onward, and the winner of numerous corn competitions. Turns out it's not a real winner in Idaho, but that's OK. It was fun to grow the granddaddy of modern corn, I reckon. Stalks were easily over 15' tall, which was quite the contrast to the other 4' tall early-ripening varieties we trialed. Hooray for biodiversity! The blue kernels in the photo are from cross-pollination from other varieties.    

Strubbes Orange We trialed 2 of the Strubbes series, mostly spurred by my desire to see if we can get a rainbow of tortillas in different colors because I think that's what will really catch folks' attention and turn them on to the concept of biodiversity. Supposedly this man Strubbe bred a rainbow of distinctly colored dent corns for use in making seed "paintings" or mosaics using seeds. Though we haven't done culinary trials yet, both varieties we trialed performed quite well in the field and are quite beautiful. We will have to see if a variety bred for aesthetics can prove to be delicious as well...which frankly the beloved Instagram-worthy Glass Gem still leaves in question. Will report back on how Strubbes measures up in the kitchen! Ripened mid-season for us--around 100 days.    

Strubbes Pink See my notes above for the history of this variety. In addition to REALLY holding out hope for a pretty pink tortilla (haven't tested it yet), I also think this is the variety for someone to work with who wants to cash in on this whole Princess-craze for young girls. I have to admit, though I'm not the most feminine of women, this one was one of the most beautiful to me--such a lovely carnation-pink color!     There were a few varieties in our trials that did not work at all, but, at least in the case of Neil's Paymaster, it got the shaft in being planted in a spot with afternoon shade. It was just how it worked out, but he didn't really get a fair shake. Don't hold it against him. These varieties didn't produce a single cob for us in our trials: Neal's Paymaster Glenn Beasley Red


On the field side, I can offer a couple of insights as well as a couple more questions. First, it seems we should stick with varieties that have no more than 105 day maturity, even though our season here is considerably shorter. I don't know for sure whether the longer-ripening ones were trying to tassle when it was too freaking hot, or if our mid-September frost did them in, or what, but that 105 days seems to be the cutoff for my area of southern Idaho. I was also surprised about how little cross-pollination we had, even given a relatively short distance between varieties (like 15' or so). I planted them in an area that was more sheltered from wind, and it made a big difference, I think. Of course, you can't rely on this for more open farms, but in all my epiphany was that I can grow considerably more varieties of corn than I thought possible, especially since I shell them by hand and can remove any crossed up kernels before shelling. In the future I will likely steward 2 different flour corns per season, plus my CSA sweet corn patch, in my 1 1/2 acre field. This will allow us to get to a point where we can scale up more varieties in a shorter period of time. Plus, I'll get more diverse tortillas for myself to eat! A few questions still remain, some of which I am soliciting the advice of larger growers to help answer and some of which will be determined in the kitchen:

  1. Combines. I think the shorter varieties actually hold a lot of promise for their early ripening. But can they stand up to a combine? Can any flour corn really stand up to a combine? Over much of the world flour corns are stewarded in small acreages and shelled by hand or with hand-crank shellers.
  2. Some of our most lovely varieties in the trials have some sweet corn kernels mixed in with them. Do we need to be selecting out the sweet corn kernels from these populations for larger scale production, processing, and storage?
  3. Wayne Marshall spoke about how Tim Cornie will be sending his flint corn he grew and harvested with a combine to Oregon to be run through some sort of laser eye to pick out broken kernels, debris, and other imperfections in the seed so it can become food-grade. Will that have to be done with these varieties after they're harvested mechanically?
  4. What of the original color of the kernel's pericarp and/or aleurone will remain after the nixtamalization and grinding process?
  5. Price. It's obvious that smaller-scale farmers can't compete on price with huge-scale industrial ag. But is there a middle ground where a smaller-scale farmer can afford to grow corn at this scale, and sell it to a restaurant who obviously can't break the bank just buying corn for tortillas. So is there a magical price point where the farmer gets a decent price for the corn, the restaurant gets the margin they need, and the eater isn't on the hook for a $20 taco? We hope so, but it remains to be seen.