Highland maize regeneration leads to new opportunities for farmers

The 3rd annual Farmer Field Day events held by the CIMMYT maize germplasm bank in December 2016 have proved that highland maize varieties from CIMMYT’s collection can perform well in farmers’ fields, even without inputs such as irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. This was the first time the maize bank field days were held outside of a CIMMYT experimental station.

When the maize germplasm bank began using CIMMYT’s experimental station in Toluca, Mexico in 2014 to regenerate highland maize varieties from the bank’s Andean and Central American highland collections, they noticed that local farmers did not have access to improved maize varieties adapted to high altitudes. “We came here and realized that local producers were planting unimproved native varieties and weren’t always achieving good yields, which made me wonder: ‘What ever happened to the improved varieties that were developed specifically for highland regions?’” said Denise Costich, head of CIMMYT’s maize germplasm bank. “What if we could take our highland materials from the germplasm bank and use them to help local farmers?”

The bank organized its first annual farmer field day at the CIMMYT Toluca experimental station with the State of Mexico’s Agricultural Research and Extension Agency (ICAMEX) in November 2014 to introduce local farmers to high altitude varieties held in the CIMMYT collection.

Some of the original highland varieties on display at the first maize germplasm bank farmer field day in 2014, including popcorn varieties. Photos: Jennifer Johnson/CIMMYT

The farmers were provided with the opportunity to review the maize growing in the station, including a pile of harvested ears at the head of each row, and a catalogue of available highland maize varieties. They were asked to grade the materials in the field. The data were compiled and the materials ranked. Another field day with ICAMEX at the CIMMYT Toluca experimental station was organized in 2015, and the same procedure was repeated on a new set of materials.

In 2016, the 12 most popular varieties chosen by farmers in 2014, and increased in 2015, were planted in farmers’ fields for the first time, grown under local conditions on land lent by farmers. The best results were achieved in La Puerta, on the Nevado de Toluca volcano in the State of Mexico, Mexico and Santa Catarina del Monte, Texcoco, Mexico. Despite the fact that these farmers did not have access to the expensive, yield-improving inputs such as irrigation, pesticides or fertilizer that were used in the original experimental trials, the varieties performed quite well, with high and stable yields.

Beautiful maize cobs grown in farmers fields on display at the field day in Santa Catarina, Texcoco, Mexico, grown from seed from the CIMMYT maize germplasm bank collection. Photo: Jennifer Johnson

Farmer field days were held at both locations in December 2016 to show local farmers that they too can receive excellent results with improved varieties they themselves selected from the Maize Germplasm Bank collection.

This included specialty maize varieties, such as popcorn and cacahuacintle, a maize variety with large kernels used for a traditional Mexican stew called pozole. These varieties can now be used to help farmers supplement their livelihoods through value-added products.

“My father has always farmed his own maize landrace varieties, but some years were so bad he barely harvested anything. Since I work at CIMMYT, I decided to ask the genebank for a maize variety that would work better for my father,” said Carmen Corona, a database administrator in the Seed Health Laboratory at CIMMYT and daughter of farmer Lucas Corona who lent his land for a demonstration. “The varieties performed very well and look to be excellent options for farmers in this region.”

Local farmers agreed. “Our traditional maize varieties are not performing as well as they used to here, perhaps because of climate change. Many people here have stopped planting maize because the yields have been so low,” said Juan Reyes Elizalde, a local farmer from Santa Catarina del Monte. “But now that I’ve seen the success of the CIMMYT varieties planted here I would be very interested in planting them, especially the popcorn varieties.”

Left to right: Local farmers examine highland maize varieties on display. Denise Costich, head of the maize germplasm bank at CIMMYT, shows off maize ears grown by a farmer at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level. Carmen Corona and her family show off their excellent maize yield with CIMMYT maize germplasm bank varieties. A farmer completes a survey about varieties he would be interested in planting. Photos: Jennifer Johnson

After the farmers had completed a survey about the maize varieties they would be interested in planting from the demonstration, Natalia Palacios, CIMMYT maize nutrition quality specialist and her team gave a presentation on the numerous nutritional benefits of cacahuacintle maize, such as its high fiber content. Participants were then given a blindfolded taste test of the cacahuacintle varieties planted at the demonstration plot, followed by a lunch where pozole made from these same varieties was served

These farmer field days are an important opportunity to inform farmers about the work of CIMMYT and the Maize Germplasm Bank, the improved varieties available to them, and how these varieties can be requested. “Almost half of the maize collections in the germplasm bank are from Mexico, and the highland regions are well-represented,” said Costich. “We are so happy to be able to get these varieties out of our “refrigerator” and into the fields of local farmers.”

A farmer participates in a blindfolded taste test of cacahuacintle varieties planted at the demonstration plot. Photo: Denise Costich
Delicious pozole, a typical Mexican maize stew, made from cacahuacintle maize varieteis from the germplasm bank grown in local farmers fields. Photo: Denise Costich
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Jennifer Johnson

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