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This corn was down to its last two cobs. Now it could help farmers grow food in the climate crisis

Jeremy Harlan, CNN

(CNN) — Hurricane Florence was targeting Campbell Coxe’s farm. Days earlier, the 2018 storm had rapidly intensified in the Atlantic, and now Darlington County, South Carolina, was in the path.

Coxe had to make a quick decision: Which of his family’s crops was he going to save?

“When you only have 24 hours, you pick the most valuable one,” recalled Coxe.

He chose the Jimmy Red corn, an heirloom crop that generations of moonshiners knew for its nutty sweet flavor and high oil content. But scientists also know it as one of a few plants that could help society grow food amid the climate crisis, as temperatures get hotter, fresh water becomes scarce and storms get stronger.

In what would normally take a week to accomplish, Coxe frantically harvested, through daylight and darkness, his 50 acres of Jimmy Red just before the storm hit and destroyed the remaining crops.

What he saved he delivered to his only Jimmy Red customer two hours down the road in Charleston.

“Not only was I counting on it, but High Wire Distilling was absolutely counting on it,” explained Coxe. “(Florence) sobered us up and scared us into thinking, ‘Hey, this is too much for one man and we need to kind of spread (Jimmy Red corn) out.’”

It wasn’t Jimmy Red’s first brush with catastrophe. In September 2008, nearly two decades before Florence hit Coxe’s farm, Ted Chewning stood in a Colleton County shop holding two ears of the blood-red corn.

“I was fascinated by it,” said Chewning, a farmer and heirloom seed collector. “It was a beautiful corn on the cob.”

They were the last two ears of Jimmy Red.

A local moonshiner – and the last known grower of Jimmy Red corn – had just died, and the family no longer wanted to grow corn for whiskey distilling. They gave the ears to the shop owner, who figured Chewning could do something with them.

“I held onto it through the winter, saved one ear, and planted the seeds from the second in the spring,” said Chewning.

Years later, scientists realized Chewning likely saved Jimmy Red from extinction and with it, a genetic code that may help commercial corn growers combat a rapidly changing climate.

The past may fix the future

It’s not just the climate that’s changing – global population is soaring, hitting 8 billion late last year and predicted to peak over 10 billion in the 2080s. The world is going to have to grow more food on half the land with half the resources, said Brian Ward, a research scientist at Clemson University.

“The genes in heirloom corn can help us do that,” he said.

Jimmy Red dwindled because it’s not the kind of corn that is edible straight off the cob. It has to be dehydrated to extract its flavor and high oil content – ideal for making moonshine, but not valuable for large commercial farming.

Its value is in its genetics.

Heirloom grains, vegetables and fruits have developed traits that make them less vulnerable to climate change, Ward said, because they have been grown over hundreds of years in wildly different conditions.

Those traits can be used to breed cultivars that will withstand harsher growing environments.

“An heirloom may have that gene that can produce well in extreme conditions,” explained Ward. “We have a geneticist that’s breeding out an heirloom snap bean. It may not be the best-looking pod or have the highest yield, but it can produce in the heat and we’ll ultimately breed it into a variety that’s higher yielding.”

Ward has been growing Jimmy Red corn for a little more than a decade to better understand its viability and biosecurity, or how well it withstands disease. It can be grown with less water, Ward said, and requires less fertilization. Its root system is incredibly stable, making the plant less susceptible to falling over in storms – something Ward believes it developed from years of enduring strong coastal storms while growing on James Island, South Carolina.

“If the only plants that stay standing and bear fruit are the ones that (farmers) saved seed from, generations later, you have a plant with characteristics that withstand high winds,” Ward said.

Knowing the genetic trait of Jimmy Red corn, Ward said, scientists can now breed that genetic code into other commercially grown corn varieties that have been susceptible to high winds.

Ward also pointed to his research on another heirloom grain, Carolina Gold Rice, as an example of using genetic breeding to combat high salinity water in South Carolina and the Mississippi River Delta, where most of the rice in the US is grown and where extreme drought has pushed saltwater upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Japanese scientists found some genetic markers that code salt tolerance,” said Ward. “Carolina Gold has some salt tolerance. But we’re breeding it now to maintain the characteristics of Carolina Gold but have the addition of higher tolerance. We’re building on their research.”

‘The old ways’

This September, Coxe harvested his 50 acres of Jimmy Red at his normal pace.

He’s no longer the lone grower for High Wire Distilling, which turned about 1.1 million pounds of the red corn into a whiskey co-founders Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell call extremely complex, with those familiar nutty, sweet flavors.

“I call it reverse pioneering,” said Marshall. “This grain is tens of thousands of years old. It’s survived a lot and done so without human input. We’re returning back to the old ways, and there’s a lot to learn from.”

High Wire has sent kernels to farms around the region to lower the odds that one natural disaster, like a hurricane, will wipe out the entirety of Jimmy Red.

Ward believes having a company like High Wire driving demand for heirlooms will ensure scientists can study the past for answers to an uncertain climate future.

“If we lose that genetic material, we can’t replace it,” he said.

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