I spent much of Saturday morning on a farm southeast of Shelton – about 25 miles east of Kearney – doing an interview, taking photos and shooting videos for a Kearney Hub section D cover feature updating the work by Nebraska gardeners to restore eight ancient varieties of corn grown by the Pawnee Nation’s ancestors before they were forced to move to Oklahoma.

NFPW members who were on the 2011 conference pre-tour learned about this effort on the first stop we made at Kearney, The Archway. Cultural Education Director Ronnie O’Brien gave us a tour that included a Pawnee-Arikara made earth lodge and a garden where she picked some of the Pawnee corn she was growing that summer.

O’Brien got involved in the effort 12 years ago when she wanted to plant a garden of Pawnee crops at The Archway. She made a connection with Deb Echo-Hawk in Pawnee, Okla., who is the keeper of the seeds, and learned that most corn varieties were down to just handfuls of seeds handed down through generations of Pawnee families and kept mostly as sacred relics.

The eagle corn, which is white kernels with dark purple splotches resembling eagle wings, has recovered well thanks to the efforts of Nebraska gardeners like O’Brien who were entrusted with some of the remaining 50 kernels.

Other varieties have been more difficult to grow because of weather conditions, the age of seeds and the need to have the plants a safe distance from all the field (feed) corn grown in Nebraska to avoid cross-pollination.

In fall 2013, I did an update with Ronnie at her Archway garden where she was thrilled to discover that some of her red flour corn crop had produced speckled red and blue kernels. Speckled corn was thought to be lost forever.

All seeds produced in Nebraska and Oklahoma go into the Pawnee seed bank and elders decide what happens to them next. In the case of speckled corn, some kernels were planted in Oklahoma, where they learned that the desired traits tended to show up in the most stressed corn and smallest ears.

O’Brien, who left the Archway in 2014 and now teaches hospitality management courses at Central Community College in Hastings, still is a “corn sister” to the Pawnee. She organizes Nebraska growers for corn and also Pawnee Spotted-Like-a-Horse and black beans, Arikara watermelons, sunflowers, and squash.

After working with yellow flour corn, another highly endangered type of Pawnee corn in 2014, she again planted the red flour corn that had produced some speckled kernels in 2013 and some of the speckled kernels themselves.

Ronnie O'Brien3

She may be picking the first ears from her home garden about the time we’re having our NFPW conference in Anchorage. For now, she can only hope she will be unwrapping a wonderful new gift of more speckled seeds.

O’Brien saw hope Saturday in one ear with its nose peaking above the shuck that showed it was turning from all white to multiple colors.

Speckled corn1

I use this story to reflect the continuing coverage done by all journalists who have beat assignments. Often, the work involves monthly meetings, budgets and drawn-out legal issues that aren’t nearly as interesting as Pawnee corn.

I’ve been covering some of my ag and natural resources beats at the Hub for nearly 29 years now, although I rarely enter the continuing coverage category of the contest because much of the progress is slow. So many of the stories sound alike because they must include the “nut graphs” of history and other information for readers who did not see the previous stories.

Our Alaska conference also has a continuing coverage theme. We will elect a new set of officers for 2015-2017, with some candidates who have already have served us well in other offices and some new folks who are stepping in to serve NFPW.

We also will be selecting a new management team.

The goal whenever there are leadership changes is to continue to provide members with outstanding services and programs. As a past president, I can tell you there are many, many, many things handled by the management team, elected officers and appointed program directors (contests, COA, membership, etc.) throughout the year that go unnoticed because they do their jobs and volunteer assignments so well.

I know that our history of outstanding continuing coverage for NFPW will continue.

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