Hurricane Florence was targeting Campbell Coxe’s farm. Days earlier, the 2018 storm had rapidly strengthened 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 choose the most valuable one,” Coxe said.
He chose Jimmy Red corn, an heirloom crop known for generations for its sweet nutty flavor and high oil content. But scientists also know that it is one of several plants that could help society grow food amid the climate crisis, as temperatures get warmer, fresh water becomes scarce and that storms become stronger.
In what would take a week to complete, Coxe savagely harvested, through daylight and darkness, his 50 acres of Jimmy Red just before the storm and destroyed the remaining crops.
What he saved, he gave to his customer Jimmy Red two hours down the road in Charleston.
“Not only did I depend on him, but High Wire Distilling absolutely depended on him,” Coxe explained. “(Florence) sobered us up and scared us into thinking, ‘Hey, this is too much for one guy and we’ve got to get some (Jimmy Red corn) spread out.'”
This is not Jimmy Red’s first brush with disaster. In September 2008, nearly two decades before Florence hit the Coxe farm, Ted Chewning stood in a Colleton County store holding two ears of blood-red corn.
“I was very interested in it,” said Coganta, a farmer and collector of heirloom seeds. “It was beautiful corn on the cab.”
They were Jimmy Red’s last two ears.
A local farmer – and the last corn grower Jimmy Red – had just died, and the family no longer wanted to grow corn for whiskey distillation. They gave the ears to the owner of the shop, who thought that Chewing could do something with them.
“I kept at it through the winter, saved one ear, and planted the seeds from the second one in the spring,” said Coganach.
Years later, scientists realized that chewing Jimmy Red probably saved it from extinction and with it, a genetic code that could help commercial corn growers cope with a rapidly changing climate.
The past may determine the future
It’s not just the climate that’s changing – the world’s population is growing, hitting 8 billion late last year and expected to hit over 10 billion in the 2080s. The world will 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 has declined because it is not the type of corn that is eaten straight from the cob. It must be dehydrated to achieve its flavor and high oil content – suitable for making moonshine, but not valuable for large-scale 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 centuries in vastly different conditions.
These traits can be used to breed cultivars that will withstand harsher growing environments.
“An heirloom may have that gene that produces well in extreme conditions,” explained Ward. “We have a geneticist who is breeding an heirloom snap bean. It may not be the best looking pod or the highest yielding pod, but it can produce in the heat and eventually we will breed it into a higher yielding field.”
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 resists disease. It can be grown with less water, Ward said, and requires less fertilization. Its root system is extremely stable, making the plant impervious to toppling in storms – something Ward believes it developed from years of enduring coastal storms growing on James Island, South Carolina.
“If the only plants that stay standing and bear fruit are the ones that (farmers) saved seeds from later generations, you have a plant with characteristics that can 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 were susceptible to high winds.
Ward also cited 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 rice is grown in the US and a very dry place. it pushed salt water upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Japanese scientists have discovered several genetic markers that code for salt tolerance,” said Ward. “Carolina Gold has several salt concessions. But we are breeding it now to keep the Carolina Gold characteristics but we have a higher tolerance. We are building on their research.”
‘The old ways’
In September of this year, Coxe harvested his 50 acres of Jimmy Red at his usual pace.
He’s no longer a sole grower for High Wire Distilling, which turned about 1.1 million pounds of the red corn into a whiskey that co-founders Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell call very complex, with those nutty, sweet flavors that know them.
“I call it a breakthrough goal,” Marshall said. “This grain is thousands of years old. It has survived a lot and done so without human input. We are returning to the old ways, and there is much to learn from them.”
High Wire sent kernels to farms throughout the region to reduce the chance that a single natural disaster, like a hurricane, would destroy Jimmy Red in its entirety.
Ward believes a company like High Wire will ensure driving demand for heirlooms that 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.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com