"Well, I think it was a big change for farmers for a couple of reasons. The first is that, up really until the 1930s, 40s, 50s, they were responsible for their own seed. I know my Mom told stories about my grandfather who farmed in Iowa doing germination tests under the kitchen sink because he was responsible for collecting his own seed. If there was any seed sharing at all, usually it was between neighbors and those kinds of things. And so the corn that was grown at that time was open-pollinated populations where the corn flower lends itself to cross-pollination, and the farmer harvested the result of that."
     [Question:] "So, where would the different parents come from?"
     "Well, it was passed along from farmer to farmer. There were probably some commercial, some money exchanged for some things. But farmers in Pennsylvania might have populations that – the rumor was – were doing pretty well. And maybe a farmer had a cousin in Pennsylvania, so he would bring him some seed. And then they would try that. And if it looked good, the rumors spread. And some neighbor farmers would pass it on. So, it was really a non-commercial enterprise. And really it wasn't much different than how successful crops get spread through society, or how they got spread through society before that time…
     "A hybrid of anything is a crossing between two parents who have distinct characteristics. And in corn, you have to do some control of the flowers. Because the male flowers are at the top of the plant and the female is along the side, you have to control how the crossing gets done. So, scientists in the early 1900s were discovering things about something called genes. They had never seen a gene. It was mysterious. But they could see the effects of those genes. And they could see where all living things had genes, including their crop plants. And so they began to focus on these plants from a scientist's point of view. And making controlled crosses was a part of their studies. So making hybrids was a big part of what they did."
     [Question:] "What were they making hybrids from?"
     "They were using the open pollinated populations, plants from the varieties that the farmers were growing. And that was their starting point – whatever corn was commercially, or was available to them – that's what they would work with. But what they discovered was that if they controlled the pollination and forced the plant to self-pollinate, you would see a less vigorous set of offspring. You'd see what's called inbreeding depression. So, if you're a corn farmer, that's not a good thing. So, the producers weren't interested in that, but the geneticists were very interested in it. And then somebody discovered that if we cross two of these inbreds, that themselves aren't very productive, the hybrid that they produce is incredibly productive. And that was given the term, "heterosis." And with some well-thought-out field experiments, they were able to demonstrate that these hybrids were more productive than the open-pollinated populations that the farmers were currently working with. And that's where the seed industry really started…
     "So, companies like Pioneer, some of the very first corn breeding companies, were founded by people who were the first to catch up with that idea and were convinced that farmers would benefit from it. And therefore farmers would pay them money to buy this new kind of corn seed… And that's worked out quite well. We see a pretty steady increase in yields in corn of about one or two percent a year as a result of the careful crossing and then field evaluation that plant breeders do."
     [Question:] "And one or two percent a year doesn't sound like a lot, but if you accumulate it over time – "
     "That's right. So if you think about it, in 1970 the average yield in the United States was about 80 bushels per acre. Now we're about twice that… So, really the plant breeding process is the same no matter what kind of crop you work with. You find parents that differ in traits, and each parent possesses traits that you would like to have in a single variety. And so that's your starting point, finding those parent lines. And then you have to make a controlled cross between them. That controlled cross could be very difficult to make. Some plants like soybeans, for example, have tiny, delicate flowers. And it takes a lot of dexterity to control the pollination in a soybean flower… Because the male and the female parts of the flower are together and the male will shed his pollen the day before the flower blooms, you have to go into a bud, a small delicate bud. And you have to carefully remove the petals from that bud. And that female is a virgin – can I use that word, virgin? She hasn't received pollen, yet. So you expose her so she can receive pollen. And then you go to the plant that you are going to use as the male, pick a flower that has bloomed and gather them, take those flowers to the female and carefully spread the pollen on those delicate flower parts. So, you can imagine that the smaller and more delicate the flower is, the more committed the plant breeder has to be to making that cross."

Don Lee – History of Hybrids


Excerpts from Don Lee’s Interview:

The Bust of the 80s
Government Subsidies
An End to Subsidies?
The Internet for Ag
Immigration in Rural Am.
Preserving Genetics
Climate Change
Politics of Ethanol
Alternatives to Corn
Genetic Engineering
Bt & Roundup Ready
Patenting Genes
RR & Conservation