During the past couple decades, we’ve lost tens of thousands of acres of rich agricultural land in Kendall County to commercial and residential development. But there’s still plenty of farmland left around these parts, and with Mother Nature’s annual spring warm-up, crops are being planted once again on the Illinois prairie.
Despite all too many former farms seem to be growing houses and strip malls these days instead of corn and soybeans, you don’t have to drive many minutes south or west before you’re deep in real farm country.
The old spring plowing, disking, dragging, and planting of my youth has given way to modern farmers’ minimum tillage techniques that maintain the stubble from the previous year’s crops for moisture retaining and soil enrichment mulch. New equipment works a fraction of a field’s surface, creating a good growth medium for row crops like soybeans and corn that assure newly planted seeds get plenty of sun to promote early germination. Minimum tillage implements do everything that needs doing to prepare the ground for seeding with a single pass, which saves time, fuel, and wear and tear on equipment. The farmers of my youth would be amazed, and probably not a little appalled. Back then, a farmer’s skill was gauged at least partly on how straight a furrow he plowed, and the accepted look of newly fields showed off their clean, black dirt surfaces.
When my wife was still teaching, she had an aide whose family had recently moved to the Fox Valley from Georgia, and that spring when planting began, one of the aide’s daughters, seeing all those black dirt fields being planted in corn and beans, asked her mother where those farmers got all that potting soil.
Planting crops in fields in the Fox Valley’s been going on for a few thousand years now. And it turns out that the Native People who moved here as the last Ice Age ended began the tradition of farming our prairies.
Those earliest of residents were hunter-gatherers who arrived following the giant Ice Age mammals they used for a goodly portion of their diet. But the other part of their name—gatherers—suggests they didn’t live by hunting or fishing alone. Indeed, they began the long process of domesticating wild grains.
As the centuries passed, other cultural traditions arose, and native agronomists intensified the domestication of a variety of plants, including little barley, goosefoot (also called lambsquarters), maygrass, erect knotweed, sunflowers, marsh elders, and squash.
Archaeological studies suggest that humans had begun the process of domesticating these wild grains and other plants by 6000 B.C. Ancient farmers modified the original wild strains by selective collection and careful breeding, harvesting seeds from the best plants in autumn to save for planting in the spring. In the 1970s, archaeologists began noticing that seeds recovered from ancient Native American habitation sites differed from their wild brethren in that they had become larger and easier to separate from the chaff and husks. And the husks themselves were far thinner in domesticated versions of the grains.
The grains the Native People chose for their use were divided into oily (sunflowers, marsh elder) and starchy (goosefoot, little barley) categories, both providing substantial nutrition when ground into flour or mixed with other foods to make pemmican or other staples of the Native Peoples’ diets.
And then a big change occurred. About 800 A.D., Zea mays—corn—was introduced to Illinois, having finally made its way north and east from Mexico, where it had been perfected over hundreds of generations. The mysterious origins of corn are still the subject of spirited debate among archaeologists and botanists. Many favor a South American grass called teosinte as corn’s ultimate ancestor. But there’s a problem: teosinte seeds do not form around a cob like corn kernels do. Nor is there any evidence at all that South American Native People ever used teosinte for food. As a result, some researchers now hypothesize corn’s real progenitor is some other wild grass, now extinct, which did have a cob on which the seeds could form. But no one really knows.
All they do know is that about 4800 B.C. primitive corn, with kernels on cobs, appeared in the archaeological record at San Andrés in Mexico, on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco near the Olmec site of La Venta. And from there, it moved along the Native Peoples’ trade routes to southern Illinois, where this extensively modified grass revolutionized agriculture.
Corn was such a successful crop, that it displaced all of the other domesticated grains Illinois residents had been breeding and planting for thousands of years, and the one-time staples soon reverted to their wild states. At one time, archaeologists and plant historians believed that Native American agriculture was created when corn arrived on the scene. But now, it’s fairly widely accepted that Native People (and we’re talking almost solely here about tribal women) were already skilled farmers when corn arrived, so that it was quickly, and almost seamlessly inserted in the existing agricultural tradition of North American native farmers.
Corn was so successful, in fact that it led to the rise of the Mississippian cultural tradition whose zenith was creation of the metropolis of Cahokia on the banks of the Mississippi River opposite modern St. Louis. Starting about 1000 A.D., Cahokia would be the largest city in North America until Philadelphia finally surpassed it in the 1780s. It was a culture built on the Native Peoples’ cornfields, along with fields of their two other staples domesticated and bred during a period of centuries, beans and squash.
Squash, it turns out, was domesticated even earlier than corn, and diffused throughout Central and North America very early on. Squash itself was edible, as were its seeds, providing an excellent source of nutrition.
And beans, it turns out, produce amino acids called lysine and tryptophan that compliment the amino acid zein found in corn, making the combination of the two far superior in nutritional value than either separately.
Thanks to all those ancient farmers, corn was prominent among the contributions they made to the success of the United States. From the colonial era into the era of pioneer settlement here in northern Illinois, corn played a huge role in feeding the area’s population.
The pioneers’ prairie farming in Illinois was based on corn, for which the state’s thick loam proved a particularly rich growth medium. When the first settlers arrived, the land was so rich, in fact, that during their first season on the prairie they often planted what they called sod corn. As one of the big, cumbersome breaking plows turned the thick prairie sod over for the first time, pioneer families walked ahead of the plow dropping kernels of corn on the ground. As the plow cut a furrow, it laid the sod over onto the ground covering the seeds. Those first crops weren’t the best, but even so, they were far better than most crops planted on prepared ground in the thin, rocky soils of Vermont or Massachusetts or New York.
In those pioneer days, corn was often planted in rows of hills, each hill with three or four kernels of seed corn. Oats, wheat, barley, and rye, on the other hand, were planted by broadcasting the seed on prepared fields, at first by hand, then by patent seeders that did the broadcasting when a crank was turned, and then by broadcast seeders attached to a farm wagon’s endgate. The endgate seeder’s broadcasting wheel that fanned the seeds behind the wagon was turned by a belt or chain attached to the wagon wheel. After broadcasting, the field was drag harrowed to cover the seeds with soil.
In those early years, pioneer farmers faced the same challenges as had the Native People, in that birds and rodents found newly seeded fields great cafeterias full of food for the taking. Native Americans tasked the tribal group’s children with scaring off grain predators, and so did the earliest pioneers. Then scarecrows were introduced, and many if not most counties in Illinois tried to reduce predation by paying bounties on crows, rats, sparrows, and other animals that ate newly broadcast seed. Later on, as farmers began to rely more on mechanization, the descendants of Jethro Tull’s (not to be confused with the rock band of the same name) grain drill came to the rescue, a machine that inserted the seeds of small grains below the ground’s surface.
By the time I was a youngster, endgate seeders were still used by many farmers—my dad and my grandfather, for instance—to plant oats as well as forage crops like timothy, alfalfa, and clover, while they used 4-row corn planters to plant corn. And nowadays, the whole process of planting has undergone another complete revolution, at least in terms of the size of the equipment farmers use to till their ground.
From the Native American female farmers who domesticated, planted, and raised the grain from ancient times, to the pioneer men who broke the prairie sod and grew grain to feed their families, to modern farmers, who are so efficient that each feeds 155 people, the plant ritual has continued, something all of us Fox Valley residents can witness on a daily basis this time of year, sometimes in our own backyards.