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The Conundrum Of Corn
It’s our most important, profitable, and adaptable crop—the true American staple. But where did it come from?
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
When he went on to agricultural school and began to write for Wallaces’ Farmer, Henry took out after corn shows. Men might appreciate a good-looking ear of corn, he said, but what are looks to a hog? Following the work done by Shull, East and Jones, he began to work on double hybrids on his own farm. Those few adventurous farmers who bought the seed of one of his strains found it the most productive corn they ever grew, so in 1926 Wallace formed the Hi-bred Corn Company to produce and sell his hybrid seed. He ran the company until he became Secretary of Agriculture. All through his years as secretary and vice-president he would come back to see how things were going and, from the corners of his pockets, bring out seeds of odd strains he had picked in his travels.
It was not easy to sell the early hybrids, uneven and unattractive, to farmers accustomed to sleek show corn. In 1935 barely one per cent of the country’s corn acreage was hybrid. In 1936 a dreadful heat wave—over one-hundred-degree days for two weeks—hung over the corn belt. An Illinois farmer named Walter Meers, dreaming of growing one hundred bushels per acre, had taken a chance on a field of hybrids. He watched in despair as all his corn wilted and dried in the heat. When rain came, it was too late to help his corn—except that field of hybrids which straightened up, greened out, and for all the traumatic heat, produced a miraculous one hundred and twenty bushels per acre.
Other farmers had similar experiences, and yield and stamina finally settled all doubts about hybrids. By 1940, as much as 40 per cent of the country’s corn was hybrid. Today it is 98 per cent, the average yield is well past that dreamed-of goal of one hundred bushels per acre, and Wallace’s company, now called Pioneer Hybrid International, is the largest corn-seed producer in the world.
Corn is easily America’s most important crop. A fourth of the total farmland is planted to it, and it brings more dollars than all other grains put together. Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska are the leading producers—Kansas, the cliché synonym for corn, goes in much more for winter wheat. In dollars, corn means more than maple syrup to Vermont and more than peaches to Georgia. About a fourth of the total crop is exported. Domestically, some 85 per cent is used for animal feed, with hogs getting about half of that.
Most of the remainder goes to industry and is used largely for its starch. An improvement in its sweetening powers has made corn competitive with sugar, and the discovery that cornstarch could be made into a super slurper that soaks up a thousand times its weight in water has helped cornstarch sales and done wonders for the paper-diaper business. Only a minor percentage of the crop goes into bourbon, which must be 51 per cent corn liquor to deserve the name, or into corn oil, or into popcorn, a special variety in which steam built up inside the heated kernel causes it to explode and turn inside out. Sweet corn, a minor crop, is sweet because it is less efficient than other kinds in turning its carbohydrates into starch. This inefficiency is known botanically as a “metabolic defect,” certainly one of nature’s happiest defects.
Corn breeders today are trying to meet special conditions. Short-summer strains now make it possible to grow corn two hundred miles farther north than the Indians ever could. New varieties have been made resistant to diseases, notably leaf blight, which in 1971 wiped out 800,000,000 bushels of Southern corn. There is intensive work going on to increase the protein content of corn. For all its great food value, corn is relatively low in protein, a serious lack in poorer countries where corn is the main item on the diet. It has been possible to increase protein, but in doing so the plant’s vigor and yield has been diminished, so the research continues. All in all, the successes of modern corn scientists have been impressive. Of course they had all that good stock to start with, provided by the uncounted generations of Indians who had done a piece of creative work unmatched anywhere in agriculture. Even modern scientists haven’t really matched it but, considering that they have had only a couple of centuries to work in while the Indians had several millennia, they have nothing of which to be ashamed.
Several months ago, the corn world was stirred by the discovery in Mexico of a hitherto-unknown perennial variety of corn’s weedy kin, teosinte. It might someday, through interbreeding, contribute useful characteristics to corn. Meanwhile, it is giving new zest to the dispute over corn’s lineage. Dr. Mangelsdorf, happily out of retirement, was back in the testing fields, hoping, by crossing the new plant with corn, to prove once and for all that teosinte is corn’s progeny, not its progenitor. Dr. Beadle, back in the laboratory, was expecting to prove the opposite by tinkering with the teosinte’s genes. Other corn men, who have long envied the fact that the ancestry of wheat, rye, oats, rice, and barley is established, wish them both well. If the new teosinte could lead them to some missing genetic link, whatever it might be, then corn would no longer be the only one of the world’s great grains that does not have an ancestor to call its own.