A high summer day with the breeze in perfect pitch, and Dr. Sherret S. Chase is talking popcorn, naturally.
"Big, tender, fluffy flakes," he said, almost in a reverie. "It's all a matter of genetics."At least he hopes so. Chase, with more than 50 years as a botanist specializing in breeding corn, is now, in the prime of his (third) retirement, stalking that most elusive of prizes - The Perfect Popcorn.
It's a hobby, he says, a way to have fun in his nursery - a five-acre field on a friend's vegetable farm. But it's also his consuming passion. Since May, when he planted corn 20 rows across by 400 rows deep, he has spent several hours a day nurturing his stalks. And it may be fun, but it's not easy.
One bad pollen day can ruin the chances for master corn faster than you can say Orville Reden. . . .
The pursuit of the perfect corn means protecting it from stray pollen and making sure the ripe pollen stays put. So Chase keeps his corn under wraps. He cloaks the tops in brown paper bags to catch ripe pollen and the shoots in white bags to prevent strange pollen from attaching itself to the corn silk.
"See," he said, demonstrating the technique on a seven-foot stalk. He pushed back his suede broad-brimmed hat, sliced a shoot and covered it in a white bag, stapling it shut. Then he covered the top with a paper bag and stapled.
To pollinate plants, he spreads yellow pollen from above onto the silk shoot; to cross-pollinate, he brushes the silk with pollen from another plant.
He is so used to it, he doesn't think twice. Chase and corn are like an Alaskan and snow, only more intimate. Popcorn, blue corn, sweet corn, meal corn: name the corn, Chase has dabbled or delved into its genetic possibilities.
Corn breeding is not exactly on the top of fourth graders' career fantasy lists, but Chase, now 76, knew pretty early on that plants were his future.
"My mother was a horticulturalist," he explained. "And growing up, I was always interested." He majored in botany at Yale and entered the rarefied world of corn breeding as a graduate student at Cornell. His thesis was on aquatic plants, but two professors working with corn piqued his interest; before long, he was poking around cornfields.
After teaching at Iowa State, he worked for DeKalb Corn Co. of Illinois, then the world's largest producer of hybrid corn seed.
For DeKalb, Chase crossbred two corns from rival growers in Argentina that became wildly successful. He also went to France to breed a corn that was able to withstand the conditions of the cold, wet soil - "another fun experience," he said.
Chase gets gushing fan letters from places like the Moldavian Institute of Genetics, telling him that his papers are like a handbook. Twice before, he has slipped out of retirement to consult corn growers in France, Spain, Italy, Puerto Rico, Haiti and throughout the Far East.
Now, living in a vacation home that has been in his family for two generations, he dishes out informal advice. High Falls boasts one of the Rondout Valley's most spectacular landscapes (which is saying a lot), but it is not exactly the Corn Belt.
Yet it's no Sahara, either. Chase counts five major corn growers in the Rondout Valley area, with more spread out throughout the Hudson Valley.
"Around here, people plant as early as they can," he said. Harvest season has already begun for sweet corn; popcorn, a relatively new addition to his repertoire, will be ready for harvest soon.