Unconventional approach to conventional corn
Brownseed Genetics marks 100 years with new innovations
By Anne Jacobson firstname.lastname@example.org
BAY CITY - Pierce County had a bumper corn crop in 1910, and Monro Brown put his harvest into storage. Pierce County suffered a drought the next year, and no one - no one else, that is - had seed because the harvest was a bust. Brown sold every stored kernel and promptly took a short course at the University of Wisconsin agriculture school. "And we were in the seed business," third-generation owner Charlie Brown said. Monro Brown's son and Charlie Brown's father, Tom, joined the firm in propagating the university's hybrids on the family farm atop the bluffs south of Bay City. Today, Charlie Brown leads Brownseed Genetics and its new subsidiary, CB Seed, from its headquarters crafted using materials from the home farm. The seed lines are predominantly companyowned-and-bred products. Brown sticks with his grandfather and father's business model: Produce seeds that grow high value, quality corn and provide it at a reasonable price. "Regarding valueadded corn, my dad said, 'We'd rather see 10 cents more per bushel per acre versus 10 more bushels per acre,' He was right," Brown said. The philosophy hasn't changed, but the development process has. In the early years, seed companies bought parent seed varieties from universities, Brown explained. Private companies took over the market in the 1960s with commercial seed lines. By the 1990s, most of them had switched to genetic engineering to create traits they wanted - pest or insect resistance, fast maturity, high protein, etc. - rather than rely on conventional breeding to create hybrids. Brownseed stuck with the natural method. "We're one of the last conventional breeders in the northern U.S.," he said. In fact, he's so passionate about the hybrid process that when the University of Minnesota officials called in 1998 telling him they planned to trash all the school's old germplasms, he drove to St. Paul to save them. "We carry 50 lines of permanent culture, 12 hybrids in CB Seed and 2,000 in the corn archive," he said touring cold storage. Staying with conventional breeding doesn't mean Brownseed skimps on technology or innovations. The company relies on DNA mapping to identify early on which corn plants in a nursery carry a desired chromosome. Quentin Schultz of Bio Diagnostics in River Falls is a major partner in the process. Together they test immature leaves using marker-assisted mapping that locates the chromosomes. Schultz recalls the day they met at Jaques Seed Co. in Prescott. He and his wife were exploring where to locate their new business and Brown was a potential client. "There was a Schultz, Schroeder and Charlie Brown in the booth. If you're familiar with Peanuts …," Schultz said with a chuckle. Brownseed Genetics holds a unique hybrid trait that Schultz predicts will have a major impact on the price of corn. "I said, 'Charlie, you need to protect yourself. We have some genotyping tools you need to identify your unique trait so no one can steal it," Schultz said. A partnership was born. "We helped him move those genes out of his original source into a commercial inbred line," Schultz explained. "We're a laboratory testing function." Again this spring in one project, Brownseed planted several thousand kernels in its Bay City nursery, tested the leaves and then selected only the plants that held promise. The company also uses a mix of greenhouses, Midwest and Chile plots to expedite the growth of those corn plants identified through DNA testing. When it's autumn here, it's spring in South America. "Believe it or not, Chile's growing conditions mimic the Minn e s o t a / Wi s c o n s i n climate," Brown said. "What used to take a Midwest grower four years we can do now in a little over a year." Two years ago, he and independent researchers plus university specialists established the U.S. Testing Network. The collaboration helped create critical mass for successful growth and research of non-genetically modified hybrid corn, he explained. "Breeding is a numbers game. You need a lot of data," Brown said. A phone rings during his explanation. The caller is from the Ukraine. A second call soon follows, this from the Middle East, where Brownseed will deliver 5 million bushels of high-oil hybrids. Certified to sell seed anywhere in the United States, Brownseed also has clients in Russia, Latvia, Egypt and Japan. A world map hangs above the office's cherry wainscoting and old wooden floor. That map shows partners and potential clients, many of
them hesitant to plant genetically modified or GMO corn made by injecting genes from algae and bacteria into the kernels. "The rest of the world has taken a 'go slow' attitude toward GMOs," he said after hanging up. Brownseed can give them the natural hybrids they need the old-fashioned way. "We are seeing that conventional hybrids can produce competitive yields to bio-tech trait hybrids." Farmers regardless of where they live also want avoid paying for over-engineering. Brownseed also fulfills that desire, he added. Brown leans back in his chair and returns to his numbers explanation. "Even though we are a small company, we accomplished 30,000 pollinatings at Bay City this summer," he said. All those numbers - the corn archive and resulting data - are paying off as Brownseed celebrates its centennial. Last winter the company launched the CB Seed retail arm, with outlets in the Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. One of the firm's most successful new projects is a kernel with large embryo, boosting that hybrid's oil content from 3.5 percent to 9 percent. Brownseed and Bio Diagnostics identified the gene pool and crossed them back to the recurrent parent five times. "Everybody's working on this. We're the first to market," he said with obvious pleasure. High oil content means farmers can feed livestock less and get more for their money. Brown is back to the family mantra: 10 cents more per bushel versus 10 more bushels per acre. Incidentally, the livestock like that corn more. "It's just buttered popcorn. The animals love it," Brown said with a laugh. In the works is a hybrid with natural resistance to the corn borer. Another shows promise for a root disease. Walking through the Brownseed complex, touching antique seed bins and nodding to employees, Brown said he'll continue developing value-added hybrids that have the most potential to benefit the farmer when disease, rain or, like a century ago, drought strikes. He smiles as he looks at the mixture of antiques and innovations in use at Brownseed. "This is my life."
Stacy Bengs/Republican Eagle Top left and right: Dwight Mattson runs corn through a cleaner at Brownseed. The precision machine removes all the debris, including chaff and bits of cob on a kernel, so the seed is ready for storage or hybrid breeding, he explained. Left: Hundreds of boxes containing thousands of kernels in envelopes sit in cold storage. "Each is identified down to the plant," worker Mark Lubich said. The company might make 50 crosses between plants to develop a hybrid for a specific purpose, such as resistance to the corn borer. Above: Brownseed will celebrate its 100-year anniversary from 1 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday with speakers, stories, food and music.
Charlie Brown doesn't make a big deal out of Brownseed Genetics being an American Organic-certified facility. The "maize squad," as he calls it, takes the place of poisons other facilities use to control rodents. The cats are good company, too, he said.
Anne Jacobson/Republican Eagle Charlie Brown (left) accepts a bottle of Ukrainian vodka Tuesday from Victor Borysova as Brownseed employee Mark Lubich and consultant Fred Clark of Nevada enjoy the exchange. Borysova and his daughter are interested in growing Brownseed's hybrids in their country.