The new variety of sweet corn developed by James Brewbaker at
the University of Hawaii's Waimanalo Research Station.
Below, Brewbaker in his field.

Photos By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

Researcher sows
seeds of
Hawaii's corn industry

The UH's James Brewbaker will
unveil a new hybrid variety tomorrow

By June Watanabe

His license plate reads "MAIZE" and he reels off the scientific names of what ordinary souls know simply as corn faster than you can say Orville Redenbacher.

Most days you can find James Brewbaker among seven-foot stalks of corn on 71/2 acres at the University of Hawaii's Waimanalo Research Station.

Thanks to Brewbaker's work, much of the fresh corn Hawaii consumers munch on today is bigger, sweeter and pesticide-free.

His newest baby, 15 years in the developing: "Kalakoa," a hybrid with purple cob and husk and deep yellow kernels. Next year, a yellow-and-white super sweet will be marketed.

Brewbaker snaps a kalakoa off a stalk, husks it and hands it over to be tasted, knowing what the pronouncement will be: sweet and juicy. "Nobody in the world makes corn that's purple," he says, noting its marketability as something "made in Hawaii."

Packets of kalakoa and other new corn seeds will be passed out tomorrow during a "Corn Field Day" at the research station on Ahiki Street. The open house, which includes tours and demonstrations, is aimed at corn growers but is open to the public.

Besides sweet corn to eat, Brewbaker and his students conduct research on field corn, used as silage or grain. The latter is not in much demand in Hawaii now, but could be developed to feed farm and dairy animals, he said.

Brewbaker, 69, has been with the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources for 35 years. Dressed for the field in rubber zories, shorts, T-shirt and battered straw hat, he stalked through rows of corn yesterday, introducing students, former students and corn growers from Thailand and Australia helping to get the field in shape for open house.

Although he's the man responsible for developing the tropical versions of what's known as super sweet corn, he's also an expert on "tropical leguminous trees," among them kiawe, haole koa, monkeypod and koa.

When he's not trying to find the perfect corn, he's working to help develop the fledgling "true koa" industry in the state.

"I'm a geneticist by heart and I'm fascinated by all crops," he said. It was while he was on the staff at the University of the Philippines in Manila in the Fifties that he "fell in love with tropical plants."

His work there involved corn and rice. Then for two years, he got off the agriculture path, joining the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to work on radiation genetics. In 1961, he joined the UH. The eldest of his four children is son Paul, chief economist with the Bank of Hawaii.

Brewbaker's research laid the foundation of the state's corn seed industry.

Since 1966, all of the major seed companies and most of the corn research institutions in the United States have looked to Hawaii for developing seed corn. The local corn industry has grown to be a $10-million-plus-a-year industry, Brewbaker said, most of it due to seed corn.

And, the basis of all that is in Waimanalo, where Brewbaker and his students have come up with many varieties of good-tasting corn that's remarkably resistant to all the bugs and diseases that plague tropical crops.

In 1980, Brewbaker founded the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association and is director of the Hawaii Foundation Seed Facility at the Waimanalo Research Station.

While the facility's No. 1 goal is to develop a pest-resistant variety of corn, "quality has to be there or no one will buy them," he said.

That's where graduate students like Sarah Nourse, 29, whose specialty is plant breeding and molecular genetics, come in. Nourse does quality control.

A visitor bites into an unblemished sweet ear of corn that seems perfect. But, to Nourse, "I'm satisfied with its tenderness and sweetness, but the ear is too short."

Coming up with something like the kalakoa "is not a quick process," requiring trial after trial, she said. "But it's interesting because you never know what you'll get."

As it is, "all corn growers in Hawaii use our seeds, except for Mr. (Ronald) Wong in Waimanalo," Brewbaker said.

The irony is that "there's very limited corn production in Hawaii," he said. "We probably eat more frozen corn than fresh." Most of his seeds are used in other locales.

"I'm like the great-great-grandfather of seeds used in Thailand and Australia," he said.

The seeds are all produced by the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, formerly the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association.

Brewbaker didn't say whether he preferred trees to corn, but he did say "you get much better fringe benefits" working on corn.

Field Day

WHAT: Open house, mainly for corn growers, to see and taste new varieties of super sweet corns; tours and demonstration
WHERE: University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources' Waimanalo Research Station, 41-698 Ahiki St.
WHEN: 8-11 a.m. Saturday

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