The creation of hybrid seeds was one of the most important discoveries in the history of farming.
Corn (maize) is a member of the grass family and is native to South and North America. The Mayan, Aztec, and Inca Indians cultivated maize more than 5,500 years ago. Maize was a part of Indian spiritual life. They called corn, beans, and squash, the “three sisters” and believed the three crops should be planted together. People from Europe who settled in America would not have lived through the winter without food (including corn) given to them by the Indians. Years later, American settlers crossed the Great Plains, cut through the thick native grasses with iron plows and planted corn and other crops.
From ancient times through the first decades of European agriculture, seeds were hand picked to try to improve the quality of the crops. Herman Goertzen says when his family picked corn by hand in the 1930s they looked for big ears with lots of big kernels. Then they used those ears as their seeds the next spring. They were searching for the best strains, but in a very unscientific way.
The modern hybrid crop industry came from the science of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. They both worked in the 1860s, but Mendel’s work was never appreciated until after the turn of the century. In the first decades of the 20th century plant scientists began developing new species of crops by crossing one “pure” strain with another. By the 1930s, they began to sell the new varieties to farmers – just as the Depression began.
Leroy Hankel says the first hybrid seeds he bought were very expensive, but they grew into good corn. He used horses to plow and plant crops, and they planted three to four seeds in hills about 15-18 inches apart. Today, farmers use tractors and plant hybrid seeds about 5-6 inches apart.
Stan Jensen remembers when his father first tried hybrid varieties. The hybrids did so well that his father never went back. Later, Stan went to college and became a plant scientist at Pioneer Hybrids where he developed several new varieties of corn. “In the period of about 10 years,” Stan says, “this country went from essentially very little hybrid corn to nearly 100 percent… That was a very remarkable, remarkable revolution in agriculture.”
Walter Schmitt says before the Dust Bowl days, farmers harvested about 35 to 40 bushels of corn per acre. Nebraska farmers now choose from many kinds of seeds that will grow in different soils and weather conditions, and will resist bugs and diseases. Along with hybrid seeds, innovations in irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides have pushed corn yields to over 150 bushels per acre and more.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.