The harvest for another Illinois growing season is mostly laid by.
The vast fields of corn growing in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa are so common that most of us Midwesterners take them for granted. But while most of us figure the Midwest’s well-tended fields of corn are one of life’s constants, a look at its history illustrates that today’s crops are the result of centuries of selective breeding and genetic manipulation.
The ancestor of corn—teosinte—originated in Mexico, where it was domesticated. For several hundred years, ancient Mexican horticulturists crossed and re-crossed varieties until the earliest varieties of maize emerged with well-filled cobs and larger kernels. According to botanists, the ancient variety that spread north, eventually reaching Illinois after many changes, was Maize de Ocho. As its name suggests, Maize de Ocho featured a cob with eight rows of relatively large kernels. Corn cultivation technology gradually spread northward as annual crosses resulted in shorter maturations and more resistance to cold weather.
Corn’s northward spread was slow but steady. By 1000 A.D. corn was being grown by Huron Indians living in the Georgian Bay area on the Canadian shore of Lake Huron. Of courts, it had reached Illinois many years before that.
As soon as they arrived, European colonists adopted corn as a major grain crop. The principal type of corn grown by the colonists—developed by the Indians they displaced—is known today as Flint Corn. Two major varieties of Flint, Northern (or New England) and Tropical, accounted for most of the corn grown early in the nation’s history. However, another type, called Dent Corn, was also developed by Indian agronomists. As it’s name suggests, Dent develops a dent in the top of the kernel when ripe. Dents were more productive than Flints, but at first, they only grew in warmer, wetter climates. The French and the Spanish imported Dent Corn into North America in the 17th Century. By 1702, it was being grown in the Tidewater area of Virginia.
Farmers soon recognized the benefits of crossing Dents and Flints. The resulting crosses featured the larger, fatter kernels of the Dents and the hardiness of the Flints. The Dent-Flint cross, which made the tremendous productivity of the Corn Belt possible, was dubbed Corn Belt Dent. Its defining characteristics were a stalk with two ears, which included large red cylindrical cobs each with 14 to 22 rows of large yellow dented kernels. When pioneer farmers arrived on the Illinois prairies, they discovered that even the earliest of what became known as Corn Belt Dents thrived in the rich soil. As early as 1839, just a decade after the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois accounted for more than a quarter of the nation’s entire corn harvest.
From the period of settlement until about 1900, farmers successfully improved yields by cross-breeding Corn Belt Dents and varieties of Flints. But by the turn of the century, they had wrung about all they could from the available genetic material and existing techniques. Then in 1904, botanists in New York and Connecticut began developing hybrid corn varieties. In the 1920s, Lester Pfister, an Illinois farmer and seed corn dealer living near El Paso in Woodford County, began developing his own hybrid corn varieties based on the most popular Corn Belt Dent variety. By 1930, he had developed a successful hybrid that, in 1934, produced the best yields in the University of Illinois’ trial corn plots. Very quickly, “Genuine Pfister” hybrids became extremely popular varieties throughout the Corn Belt. But competition is the American way, and it didn’t take long for Iowa’s Henry Wallace to develop his Pioneer Hi-Bred varieties and for Eugene Funk of Funk’s Grove in Illinois to come up with his. In fact, Wallace and Funk quickly came to dominate innovation in corn hybridization. Wallace rode his corn’s popularity all the way to Washington, D.C., becoming Secretary of Agriculture and eventually Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Farmers found hybrids had their own positives and negatives. Since they weren’t open-pollinated, hybrid varieties required farmers to buy seed each year instead of growing their own, creating a new financial burden. But the positives far outweighed the negatives. The hybrids’ stronger stalks stood longer and were better suited to mechanical harvesting. Hybrids also had far higher yields than their open-pollinated ancestors. Reliance on mechanization tempted farmers to plant more dense fields by changing the spacing of plants. In the 1950s, fields had about 12,000 plants per acre, but by the 1960s, 25,000 plants were being planted on each acre, with proportionally more herbicide, insecticide, and fertilizer being used to sustain land with crops that were being rotated less and less. Genetic modifications made stalks even stronger to withstand new combined harvesters, and to put each stalk’s two ears of corn at the optimal level above the ground to be harvested with the least amount of waste.
Today, signs in area corn fields still advertise the end results of Lester Pfister, Henry Wallace, and Eugene Funk. Each of those signs on test plots throughout Kendall County are historical reminders marking the trail of Maize de Ocho from Mexico to Illinois.