The first hybrid corn was produced in 1922. In retrospect, scientists say it was the first and most important agricultural discovery of the 20th century. It is easy to understand why, given that the average corn yield was approximately 26 bushels per acre before hybrids came to be.
Dad, who started his career planting corn with horses and checked corn in until past the mid-1950s so rows could be cultivated both ways, was overjoyed with 80 bushel per acre yields. That was close to the national average in 1955.
The job of a young boy in the decade was to level the ear mound as corn spilled from the mounted picker’s elevator. The sturdy WD Allis struggled under the picker’s clumsy weight and when rain and snow turned the ground oily.
It was a blue-sky and warm day — the kind that is all too rare in mid-October — when Dad stopped the tractor on the headlands and commanded me in an excited voice to jump down from the wagon.
“This is the tallest corn I have ever seen,’’ he said, adding that I should run as fast as possible to the house to tell my mother to bring the big black box camera to the field.
Photo taking, in those days, was generally reserved for church milestones, family reunions and the like. Mother searched through the crowded hall closet until she found the Kodak.
“Hurry,’’ I said, “Dad’s waiting on you.’’
Mother moved as fast as she could. Dad, seated on the tractor seat with tall stalks behind him, smiled after he used a red handkerchief to wipe dirt from his face.
“This is the best corn I have ever grown,’’ Dad said after the photographs were taken. The field, which was just east of the barn, had received a heavy dose of manure the year before.
The rest of the crop was nearly as good, which meant corn cribbing being pulled from where it was kept in the machine shed. A certain amount of skill was needed to construct a three-ring crib.
Dad was proud when his boys finished building a long and narrow corn crib on the crest of a hill. The crib was constructed with old telephone poles, heavy wire, and boards that gave a little when walked on. The crib, in pre-combine days, was a godsend, though grinding out of it could get awkward.
Worse, climbing the hill in winter with the Oliver 880 and mixer mill, could be difficult in icy conditioned. Tire chains helped, but the noise created when the chains banged against the tractor’s fenders was headache-inducing.
Dad would be surprised to know that nearly all corn growers in these parts consider yields less than 200 bushels an acre something less than a bumper crop.
Hybrid corn (if creation of the self-scouring plow and biotechnology-infused seed is dismissed) was the most important discovery of the 20th century.
Dad would be awestruck at the cost of corn seed, and that he would be prosecuted if soybeans that included patented biotechnology were taken from a bin and planted.
He had always looked forward to the spring when the antique seed cleaner in the granary cleaned small grain and beans. The granary, which had been a house when the family was just getting established on the land, was dusty and built with heavy native lumber.
Scientists agree that the pace of technological-driven improvements in crops and yields must pick up as the world’s population grows. Crops that can better handle drought conditions in Africa and elsewhere show promise. It is possible that in coming decades soybeans and corn will become perennial crops.
Imagine, harvesting corn and beans from fields planted three years before.
Mother’s box camera has been lost in time, but the memory of the best corn Dad ever grew remains.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.