Restoring Northern Flint Corn for Indigenous Communities

Jan 08, 2024

By Laura Hardie

Northern flint corn is a species of corn grown by indigenous communities and tribes across the northern part of the U.S. Unfortunately, this unique and culturally significant crop has been diminished due to factors such as colonization and the resulting decline in indigenous populations and traditions. Other factors such as climate change also threaten the future of northern flint corns.

"Our tribal communities, would have been actively selecting seeds over time to use for food, ceremonies, and those best adapted to the climate/environment , and if they had been able to do that over time, we wouldn't be in a situation where we would be thinking we would lose these," UVM Extension Professor and researcher Heather Darby said.

However, through the Genetics by Environment by Management (GEM) project funded by the FSRC, Darby is working to evaluate 60 northern flint corn varieties procured from the USDA germplasm repository. This seed bank preserves genetic resources for research and variety development. The evaluation aims to identify varieties that can survive our warming climate and that contain the characteristics such as nutritional properties indigenous people rely on. Flint corn is also particularly interesting to food producers who make corn-based products like tortillas and chips because of the corn's unique flavors, nutritional properties, and stories.

"We are working with the College of Menominee Nation and other colleges across the northern tier of the U.S. to assess these lines of flint to understand which ones are best adapted to today's climate, and we'll be working on starting a breeding program to continue to breed northern flints to move into the future," Darby said.

Darby says Northern flint is grown in cold climates, so as the climate warms, some varieties may be unable to survive where they typically had in the past. Therefore, the successful restoration of Northern Flint Corn will contribute significantly to promoting biodiversity in agriculture and food production.

"Working with the Abenaki communities here in Vermont, they want culturally important varieties. They are still maintaining them, but they are so little, and today's climate and production system are not overly conducive to the corn they grew hundreds of years ago," Darby said. "So, we are working with the Abenaki communities to figure out how not just to preserve their culturally significant varieties but also to think about developing new lines of corn that fit today's climate."

Though, Darby said that across the U.S., some indigenous communities are not interested. 

"They feel like their corn has been stolen from them, so understandably, they're saying, we're not trusting you with this work," Darby said. "But that is different here in Vermont, and tribal communities here are interested because growing traditional foods here, such as flint in its current state, is difficult."

The evaluation of northern flint obtained from the USDA germplasm repository is a significant step towards restoring this crop. Unlike commodity crops that are grown on a large scale, northern flint corn is grown in pockets of places and for specialty markets. Only a few small seed companies offer varieties such as Calais flint or garland flint produced on a small scale. Most of the flint varieties Darby is evaluating cannot be obtained anywhere else, and the research team could only get about 100 seeds from the germplasm. The first phase of the research will measure growth traits like height, which will then be combined with a nutritional analysis by UVM Associate Professor Dr. Jana Kraft.

"The next step would be figuring out what lines we would make crosses of," Darby said. "If the Abenaki community were growing corn, it would have been adapted over time, but they haven't really, so that type of change, which would have occurred slowly over time, now needs to happen faster."

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