On Feb. 25, 2024, my good friend Arthur (Art) C. Abbott Jr. passed away after battling an extended illness. I wanted to share some thoughts on our relationship and the impact he had not only on me personally but on the vegetable industry.

As our colleague Dr. Mike Orzolek, professor emeritus, Penn State, said when we were talking about Art’s passing, Art was indeed “the King of Sweet Corn.”

My friendship with Art began when we were in junior high. We were like brothers, always at one another’s houses. Art’s father (Arthur Sr.) was head of the seed company Abbott and Cobb Inc., located in the Frankford neighborhood of Philadelphia. The company was founded in 1917 by Art’s grandfather and his brother-in-law. They were purveyors of high-quality vegetable seeds primarily along the Eastern Seaboard.

We graduated high school in 1963. I attended Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA, majoring in economics and business. Art went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, graduating with a degree in marketing and a minor in business law. After college, I joined the Navy and Art went to work with his family at Abbott and Cobb.

After returning home in 1971, Art and his father hired me to work at their research farm in Feasterville, PA, while I decided what I really wanted to do with my life. I loved working outdoors, tilling the soil and growing crops for the vegetable trials and working at the store in Frankford. I decided that if I was going to continue in this field of agriculture, I needed some formal education, so I enrolled at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, PA. That was the beginning of a long and rewarding career in academia and vegetable crop production ending in 2017 as professor emeritus at Penn State. You could say that Art and his father launched my career – to them both I am forever thankful.

Art began leading the company in 1975 after the death of his father. This was a major turning point in the development of the company. As stated in his obituary, “As CEO, Art was a natural-born leader, genius and most of all, an undaunted, fearless, trailblazing maverick in seed genetics.” Under Art’s leadership, Abbott and Cobb went from being a small seed company to marketing vegetable seed to organizations all over the world. Art’s real breakthrough came with the development of the “Super Sweet” sweet corn and the later development of seedless watermelons and extended shelf-life melons.

Fifty years ago, sweet corn wasn’t all that sweet and had a short shelf-life, making it difficult for grocery stores to stock. The old adage said “To get good sweet corn, grow it, and when it’s ready, husk it and immediately put it in a kettle of boiling water.” Jerald Pataky, a University of Illinois (UI) plant pathologist, wrote an article researching the history of UI’s contribution to the existence of today’s super sweet corn and provided an excellent outline the development of the corn.

The story of sweet corn began in the early 1950s when John Laughnan, a corn geneticist and UI professor of botany, was investigating the relationship between two genes, one which results in purple pigmentation and another – sh2 – which causes kernels to shrink and shrivel. As he contemplated why kernels of the sh2 genotype were so shriveled, he discovered that the endosperm of sh2 kernels stored less starch and four to 10 times more sugar than endosperms of normal “sugary” sweet (or field) corn. In 1953, he published his work and suggested that his findings might be of use in commercial sweet corn hybrids.

Despite a lack of support for his ideas, Laughnan began a program to convert a few of the most popular sweet corn inbreds to sh2. In 1961, through Illinois Foundation Seeds Inc. (IFSI), he released the super sweet versions of ‘Golden Cross Bantam’ and ‘Iochief’ (which became known as ‘Illini Chief’). Since seed of Illini Chief was difficult to produce, IFSI developed a three-way hybrid named ‘Illini Xtra Sweet,’ becoming the first company to sell super sweet corn. They began to develop markets for the new product in the U.S. and Japan. For the next 20 years, IFSI and Crookham Co. (a family-owned, Idaho-based seed company) were the only ones involved in Illini Xtra Sweet seed production and were the only commercial companies with serious super sweet breeding programs.

During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, A.M. Rhodes, a UI professor of horticulture, discovered the “sugary enhancer” trait in an inbred line developed from a cross of Illinois sweet corn and Bolivian corn. This trait modified normal sugary sweet corn, resulting in about twice as much sugar content and extremely tender kernels. Compared with the super sweet hybrids available, these new hybrids were slightly less sweet but considerably more tender and with a creamy texture. Still, like normal sugary sweet corn, the hybrids had a relatively short shelf-life because sugary and sugary-enhancer hybrids converted kernel sugars to starch after harvest. Super sweet hybrids with the sh2 gene, on the other hand, lacked ADP-glucose pyrophosphorylase, the enzyme responsible for this conversion.

Art Abbott

In the early 1980s, under Art’s visionary leadership and marketing acumen, Abbott and Cobb Inc. began a successful marketing campaign to educate grocery store produce buyers and Florida sweet corn growers about the superior extended shelf-life of super sweet corn. Within five years, the sweet corn produced in Florida went from less than 2% super sweet to more than 90% super sweet. Soon, the same trend occurred throughout the U.S. for all sweet corn grown for long-distance shipping.

Simultaneously, the introduction of a super sweet hybrid with traits necessary for processing marked the beginning of canned super sweet corn, which required no additional sugar or salt added. Art and his scientists continued to improve the lines of super sweet corn so consumers could enjoy even better sweet corn and growers could have a seed with enhanced viability and strength of emergence. That’s why Art was considered “the King of Sweet Corn.”

His obituary said, “He pushed his staff, his scientists, even his competitors and his customers to join him in what he felt was a most extraordinary adventure. He inspired so many to think differently, to reach beyond what was comfortable, to accept the necessary hard work to uncover once hidden possibilities.” This led Syngenta to acquire Abbott & Cobb in 2018, to strengthen its vegetable seed business in sweet corn, one of the core crops in which Syngenta has a leading position globally.

For growers, it was indeed a blessing that Art spent more than 40 years in an industry that he cherished and loved while developing and promoting delicious sweet corn varieties to consumers.

Art’s wife Nancy Craig Abbott said, “You meet certain people in life that have that special aura, contagious passion and innate magnetism that draw you to them and inspire you to join them on their journey.” Art was one of those people. He was a good friend and a colleague, and he will be missed by many.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.