December 30, 2013 | 02:11 PMTOWN OF LYONS — In an enclosed loading dock in a small, Spartan business space on Madaus Street, just north of Lake Geneva, two workers were sorting corn for analysis at a US Department of Agriculture laboratory.
The USDA analysis will measure the moisture and protein content of the corn kernels and determine the corn’s overall nuitritional value.
The corn was bred this summer in cornfields in Walworth County and Illinois.
The breeding was done under the direction of Walter Goldstein, founder of the Mandaamin Institute.
Mandaamin comes from the Algonquin Indian language, and means “corn,” or “spirit of corn,” Goldstein said. He started the institute in 2011.
Mandaamin’s goal is to produce a breed of corn that has a better nuitritional value and can grow almost anywhere with fewer fertilizers and less pesticide.
The new corn crossbreeds are coming out of native corn breeds, Goldstein said.
“Our intent is to bring out a better corn,” he said.
The institute itself is rather modest. In addition to the storage and sorting area, the institute has a small, sparsely furnished office where Goldstein greets visitors.
Among the Walworth County test sites where the new breeds are developed are cornfields in Delavan, Little Prairie, East Troy and Elkhorn, Goldstein said.
Right now, the institute getting along with just four employees.
But during the summer, when the corn is growing, the institute has as many as 20 workers, Goldstein said.
That’s human workers.
Also at the Mandaamin storage facility is a black-and-white stray cat named Maize Midnight Mouse Killer. Her name is also her job description.
Keeping rodents out of the corn samples is an important job, Goldstein said. And Maize apparently does the job well.
The bags of corn and some wheat stored here were harvested in October and November.
In addition to growing fields in Wisconsin and Illinois, the institute also has a nursery in Puerto Rico, where it can grow two crops of corn per year.
Goldstein said he’s pleased with progress so far.
He said they have produced a feed corn that’s high in nutrients. The kernels have a deep orange color. When fed to chickens, the chickens lay eggs that have yolks that are a deep orange, as well, he said.
Another breed of corn has large yellow kernels and is suited to human consumption, either as vegetable or processed food. It has more protein and keratin than other species of corn, Goldstein said.
Goldstein is a native of Washington state and graduate from Washington State University with a master’s degree and doctorate in agronomy.
He said he came to Walworth County in 1986 to be part of the start-up staff of the Michael Fields Institute near East Troy.
While Goldstein may be far from his home, his wife, Berte, is from Norway. She has family living in the Madison and Eau Claire areas. Coming to Wisconsin was like a homecoming for her, he said.
The Goldsteins own a small farm near Alpine Valley, where Berte Goldstein runs a summer program to introduce school children to farm life.
Goldstein spent 25 years with the Michael Fields Institute, which is now in its 30th year.
Michael Fields has a broad agenda on sustainable farming and making farming more efficient without use of many pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers or genetically modified plants, Goldstein said.
But in 2011, Goldstein decided to break away from the institute and start his own effort to focus on two important grains in the American food chain, corn and wheat.
Like the Michael Fields Institute, Mandaamin Institute is not a big fan of genetically manipulated organisms, or GMOs.
GMOs are created in corporate laboratories, where plant DNA spliced and manipulated to include what companies believe are favorable characteristics.
“I personally have concerns about GMOs,” Goldstein said. Goldstein said he doesn’t believe that what’s coming out of the laboratories and winding up on peoples’ dinner plates has been tested enough to be regarded as really safe.
Mandaamin Institute crossbreeds plants, either by natural selection or pollinating the plants by hand, which is a grueling, exacting and time-consuming process.
But what the agronomists can accomplish in the farmer’s field is as flashy as anything that comes out of a test tube.
It just takes more time and testing.
For example, Mandaamin is working on a nitrogen-efficient breed of corn that can cooperate with certain microbes to pull more nitrogen out of the soil and air than other breeds of corn.
Goldstein proudly shows a picture of two sets of ears of corn, both grown in sandy soils without fertilizer.
The four ears of nitrogen-efficient corn are noticeably larger and more appetizing in appearance than the less-efficient breed. Not that Goldstein is recommending planting corn in sandy soil.
Rather, the more efficient plants would save farmers in fertilizer costs.
“Many farmers would like to reduce their fertilizer bills,” he said.
Included in the new breeds is a robust growth process that has the corn getting the edge on weeds, and actually outgrowing them.
Caught in the shade and deprived of nutrients, weeds don’t cause a problem for the corn plants.
Goldstein said he’s also trying to develop a wheat that people with problems digesting gluten can digest.
It produces a gluten less irritating to the gut, he said.
While corn and soy are the big Walworth County crops, winter wheat is commonly grown in the Delavan area, he said. Goldstein said his funding is coming from a variety of sources.
He is working with Iowa State University, Cornell University, New Mexico State University and the Practical Farmers of Iowa, along with different private breeders.
While the University of Wisconsin is not directly involved in his research, Goldstein said he’s located his institute in Walworth County because “it’s a great place to be.”
And, he said, he is consulting with the University of Wisconsin Extension on starting a seed company that can process and sell seed on the general market to farmers.
“Our goal is to produce hybrid seed corn for general consumption,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein said he has five farmers who are cooperating with his crossbreeding program in Walworth County. But the real test will be when he is able to market his new seeds.
“Farmers would be more interested if we had a final product,” he said.
He said the institute started work on its first hybrid this year and will begin work on a second hybrid next year.
There is no rigid timetable for getting a hybrid developed, Goldstein said.
“We’re working it out as we move along,” he said.
The next step would be to build a pilot plant for drying, shelling, sorting and bagging seeds for market, he said.
He said the institute may also work with a company interested in the licensing and marketing of the new corn breeds.