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[Vol. 21, no. 1]
February/March 2018


Hawai'i's King of Corn 

Story by Kevin Whitton

Photos by Elyse Butler


Long before the arrival of GMO, Dr. James Brewbaker was creating stronger, more-disease resistant, more nutritious varieties of corn the time-honored way: by crossing specific plants to select for desirable traits. For decades, Brewbaker has kept meticulous records for those crosses, all recorded in the little notebooks he takes into the field. Here he stands amid stalks of sweet corn at the spot that has been home to his work from the beginning, UH's Waimanalo Research Station.

In 1929 plant breeder
Harvey Brewbaker loaded his wife and 3-year-old son James into a 1926 Ford Model T and left the family home in Minnesota, bound for New Mexico. Brewbaker, who was fascinated by the Navajo of the American Southwest, was on a mission to research the tribe’s most important plant: corn. The family made steady, bumpy progress across the country and finally arrived in New Mexico. There, James explored as his father visited with tribal elders and discussed varieties of corn. When the young boy discovered two large piles of harvested cobs, one white and one blue, he navigated his way between them, sat down and curiously examined their hard kernels with his fingers. His father, taken by the moment, produced a heavy, boxy camera from his hip bag and snapped a picture.


It was a prophetic image, one that the now 84-year-old James Brewbaker still has today. He fondly retells the story of its creation—as he thankfully attributes his own lifelong career as a plant breeder and geneticist to his father’s curiosity about corn and other crops.