Russ Kronback is turning red to green. The Lamberton, MN, farmer is raising red corn, a new specialty crop bound for the natural food-coloring market. Kronback grows corn and soybeans on 900 acres in southwest Minnesota. This season, he also grew 155 acres of Suntava Red Maize, a proprietary non-biotech variety.

The magenta-colored maize is rich in natural red pigments and antioxidants — both common food additives, says Bill Petrich, Suntava CEO. The Minneapolis biotechnology company was launched in 2007 to commercialize products derived from the new hybrid. In 2007 and 2008, Suntava contracted with Kronback and three other Minnesota farmers for several hundred acres of red corn.

Suntava Red Maize is the result of more than a decade of traditional corn breeding work by Red Rock Genetics, a small independent research firm founded by entomologist Lee French, Lamberton, MN. His international team of plant breeders “collected germplasm from all over the world,” French says. The team was searching for genes to improve host plant resistance to insects. In an unexpected bonus, their red maize hybrids turned out to be full of anthocyanins — red pigments with many commercial applications.

IN JULY, SUNTAVA began manufacturing red colorants from Suntava Red Maize. The company also plans to extract antioxidants from red corn in the near future. Suntava's plant-based food colors are an alternative to FD&C Red No. 40, a widely used synthetic food dye made from coal tar. Natural dyes are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to petroleum-based synthetic dyes, Petrich says.

Grower Russ Kronback has followed Lee French's breeding work on red corn with interest. The two men are old friends, and Kronback's children worked in French's research fields. “I asked a lot of questions, and the more I heard about it, the more intrigued I was,” says Kronback, who invested in Suntava and signed on as one of the first commercial growers of red corn.

Red maize production is similar to yellow corn, he says. Kronback knifed in anhydrous ammonia in the fall and planted at standard population rates of 32,000 seeds/acre. He applied Surpass and Callisto for weed control.

As the 95-day corn plants mature, they turn red — grain, husks and even part of the stalks. “After pollination, it gets a deep maroon color,” Kronback says. “It's fun when you're combining it and you look in the hopper.” The grain looks “coal black. It's a little harder than yellow corn and there's very little cracking, but if there is some cracking, it looks like white stars.”

Suntava Red Maize doesn't yield as well as yellow corn, producing about 100-120 bu./acre in southwestern Minnesota, Kronback reports. An improved red maize hybrid will be available for the 2009 season, Petrich says. Growers are paid a premium to offset lower yields and the risk of growing a new crop, he says.

Production contracts and identity-preserved storage are being handled by another Suntava investor, Meadowland Cooperative, a 3,000-member co-op in southern Minnesota. If Suntava's business takes off, red maize could be a good specialty crop for Meadowland farmers, says John Valentin, Meadowland general manager.

“This crop is in its infancy,” Kronback adds, “and it's only going to get better. I get goose bumps thinking about the potential.”