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The Pioneers of Corn Breeding: The Corn Revolution of 1926

Each week I check in with Andy to see what the hot topic is around the office and try to focus my blog post on something that would help you guys out the most. So, I really wasn’t ready when Andy told me that everyone had been pretty overloaded with agronomy info lately with all the field days, customer appreciation events, and news sound bites. I guess we have been in the thick of it—an unusual growing season, some recent hail events, crop reports that we are skeptical of, and news from Washington that isn’t overly encouraging to our bottom line. So, if I wasn’t allowed to talk about ANY of that---what should I talk about this week? Maybe nothing—give you all a break from my blathering. No, I couldn’t do that! My loyal readers would miss me too much! 😉


So, I decided to talk about the Corn Revolution—or rather the lead up to the Corn Revolution. Many of you know about the recent mergers that got Pioneer to where it is today. But do you know about the history that put Pioneer at the forefront of the dramatic increase we’ve seen in yield over the last 90 years? And what about the key players and technologies that got us here? Have I piqued your interest? Or are you pushing the back button on your browser? Hang in here with me for a few more paragraphs. I had honestly never researched in depth the history of Pioneer—and truthfully, it was quite fascinating. It also gave me a much deeper appreciation for our current industry, company culture, and commitment to growers like you. Thank you. (Do I sound like a PBS station??)


It all started in 1926. People wanted better corn yields. So, a group of farmers started some tests and found out how to do it, the whole corn and farming industry was revolutionized, and the rest is history! The end!

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Okay, so that would be the INCREDIBLY short version. The story starts with Henry A. Wallace. Always an inquisitive young man, around the age of 16, he began conducting research on the main crop of his home state of Iowa: Corn. At the time, the leading belief was that the best looking seeds made for the best corn seed the following year. This belief was so widely held that contests were held by county and state fairs as well as universities all across the corn belt to judge the best looking ear. Wallace started to wonder if this was true, so he started doing selective cross pollination of corn—both the “pretty” corn and the not so pretty. Through his research he found that he could produce ears that yielded more than the “pretty” ears. This was a direct challenge to the information given by Perry Greely Holden, a vice dean at Iowa State University and the first professor of Agronomy in the United States. Holden posited that the best looking ears would always yield the highest and these are the ones that should be saved for planting the next year. One can only assume that the assertions that a 16 year old was making against the “establishment” were somewhat controversial.


At the time, average expected yields were around 40 bushels. Due to open pollination, genetics across a field were quite diverse. The top 10 percent yielded 25 bushels higher than the bottom 10 percent. This was a huge inequality in comparison to total yield. Hybrid corn produced by Wallace not only increased yield, but dramatically improved consistency of yield. But how could young Wallace get the word out about this improved seed? After attending college at Iowa State University, Wallace returned home to write for his family’s nationally recognized agriculture journal, Wallace’s Farmer. (You may recognize the Wallace’s Farmer Journal by its new names: The Kansas Farmer, The Nebraska Farmer, Prairie Farmer, and in Iowa, the Wallace Farmer) How convenient to have that platform to discuss the concept of corn breeding.


Well it turns out that the kid was right. By selectively breeding through detasseling, Wallace was able to create the first well known hybrid, Copper Cross Corn which yielded substantially better than open pollinated corn. In 1923 he made the first ever contract to grow seed corn with the Iowa Seed Company, and in 1926 along with his brother Jim and several other individuals, founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company whose mission was to breed and sell hybrid corn seed. This was the first company founded for the specific purpose of breeding and selling hybrid corn. The group started out with 40 acres that was hand pollinated and hand harvested. And it was a success. After a decent first few years of selling mail order seed, sales doubled by 1929, requiring expansion. Another 80 acres was purchased for developing parent lines of seed. While successful, there was still a lot of hesitation by the general farming populous. The hybrid seed routinely yielded 20 bushels per acre more, but many farmers complained that it was too expensive to purchase. However, the dramatic difference in yield resulted in a new category in those same county, state, and university fairs—this time for hybrid seed.


https://www.corteva.com/who-we-are/our-history.html

Like any company, external factors largely proved to be the most impactful on a company’s success or failure. In this case, that external factor was the great depression and the dust bowl. Would these national tragedies prove to be a source of failure or success for the new Hi-bred Corn Company? In the heat of the dust bowl, corn yields suffered. But compared to the traditional open pollinated fields, Hi-bred corn thrived and showed a dramatic advantage. Coming out of the dust bowl and great depression, Hi-Bred had firmly established itself as a supplier of corn seed. Farmers were more willing to pay the extra money, knowing they would see dramatically improved yields as evidenced by those hard years during the dust bowl.


To begin marketing to the many individuals that wanted Hi-Bred seed, the company started a model called the farmer-salesman concept. They felt this model was optimum because the salesmen would be well known in the communities as well as gain first hand knowledge of the products in their own fields. This model was quite successful and was adopted across the whole industry and is practiced even today. The success of Hi-Bred was such that competitors started entering the market. To distinguish themselves from other companies selling hybrids, the name of the company was changed to Pioneer Hi-Bred. The company grew, and research stations were added, production fields expanded, and by the end of the 1940’s the majority of farmers were using hybrid seeds.


I could go on about the mechanization and technology adaptions in the 50’s, or the rapid influx of biotechnology in the late 1980’s. And maybe I will another time. But for now, I think I’ll wrap up with the man who got things started: Henry A. Wallace. In 1933, Wallace was picked to be Secretary of Agriculture in FDR’s administration. In 1940, Wallace was elected Vice President of the United States with Roosevelt as President and served in that capacity for 4 years until he was replaced on the subsequent ballot by a Roosevelt-Truman ticket. Roosevelt then nominated him as Secretary of Commerce. He even ran for president in 1948 as a third-party candidate (and only won 2% of the popular vote). Throughout his years in politics, he remained a co-owner of Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company. He experimented extensively on his farm in New York. Much of his research there focused on chickens. (Did you know that Pioneer Hi-Bred used to breed chickens? In fact, at one point, 3/4 of the eggs sold commercially in the world came from Pioneer chickens.) While Henry A. Wallace’s political career was largely over, he still served as an unofficial advisor to several presidents and congressmen. His legacy as Secretary of Agriculture and his influence on modern corn breeding won’t be forgotten—the USDA named its research center in Beltsville, MD after him. (It’s the largest ag research center in the world!)


There is so much more to tell, leading up to the Corn Revolution of today. But for fear of losing some of you due to an ever lengthening blog post, we will save the rest for later. Questions or comments? You can post below!


Resources

http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/pioneer-hi-bred-international-inc-history/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_A._Wallace#1948_presidential_election

https://www.corteva.com/who-we-are/our-history.html

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