Editor’s note: Please enjoy this Dr. Rosmann column from 2014.
Corn and soybeans, two of the most prominent crops grown in the Midwest and many parts of the world, have interesting histories, uses and reasons for their importance.
Other crops are also important, but corn and soybeans rank first and second respectively in acres harvested and cash receipts in the U.S. Both crops are highly adaptable.
They complement each other well, as every farmer knows. Corn, a grass plant, needs nitrogen to maximize its production, which soy, a legume, produces nitrogen.
Soybeans utilize much phosphate and potash, which the ample fodder (roots, stalks, leaves, and cobs) of corn furnishes. Rotating them annually usually benefits farmers.
Both crops are widely used, first as feeds for livestock, poultry and fish, and second as oils for various uses including fuel (ethanol and biodiesel) and human food.
Additionally, corn is widely used as a sweetener in many items including cereal, soda pop, ice cream and a long list of other consumables. It is also used for plastic, paint, glue, antiperspirant and toothpaste, among other things.
Soybean oil is the most widely used cooking oil in the U.S. and several other countries. Soy is also used to make varnish, ink, as an emulsifier to hold candy bars and other substances together, as substitutes for milk and meat and a long list of other products.
A 2013 book stimulated my interest. A fellow resident of my county, Steve Kenkel, sent me Kernels of Corn History (www.hybridcorncollector.com), a book he compiled about the history of local producers of hybrid corn seed.
More than a half century ago, Shelby County, Iowa, had more commercial producers of hybrid corn seed than any other county in the U.S. I saw names I am familiar with, like Kilpatrick, Pingel, Plumb, Rosmann and Wilson, to name but a few in the book and the history of their operations.
I am also well acquainted with families in the area who developed leading soybean seed companies. I grew soy seed for one of these companies for a number of years.
Many major corn and soybean seed companies started in the Midwest, like Pioneer, DeKalb and Stine. There are many others; I don’t mean any offense if I didn’t mention your favorite brands.
Why did more corn and soybean seed innovations seemingly occur in the American Midwest than any other place? Midwestern people are probably not smarter or harder working than people elsewhere.
The Indians of Central America started selecting seeds in the maize family, the precursor to corn, for food about five thousand years ago. They noticed a genetically mutated plant that had its seeds on the stalk while its flowers were on the top of the plant.
European immigrants to the Americas took advantage of the many advances their Indian predecessors had already achieved. However, yields of open-pollinated corn seldom exceeded 40-50 bushels per acre, even during a favorable growing year.
Major factors that influenced crop seed productivity in the Midwest include favorable climate, variations in the soil and environment, and a concentration of food producers in a specific region at the right time and place.
Most corn growers are familiar with the story of hybrid seed development by Henry A. Wallace. Wallace, a farm publication editor in Des Moines, Iowa, who later became Secretary of Agriculture, drew on the work of earlier experimenters by crossing different varieties of corn and found desirable traits that greatly enhanced yields.
Wallace and a group of Iowa businessmen founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1926 that later became the largest corn seed company in the world, Pioneer.
Soybeans followed a couple decades later after having been introduced from China into the southeastern U.S. in the early 1900s as a forage crop. As other uses were discovered and adaptations to a colder climate were achieved, numerous soybean seed companies proliferated in the Midwest.
Many of the early corn and soybean seed breeders were inspired by the rapidly advancing knowledge of inheritance, and the Midwest offered the right set of conditions to favor their experimentation. The variations in soil type and changeable weather conditions encouraged efforts to isolate the traits that maximized production across a range of conditions.
Careful observation skills, so important to the most successful scientists and farmers, were key to selecting the most adaptable and consistently high yielding plants.
Many of the advances in both corn and soybean production took place at the land grant universities in the Midwest and on Midwestern farms. Most farmers have their favorite seed companies, but we don’t see the familiar brand names as often anymore.
Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta collectively own 47 percent of the proprietary rights to global seed production. They, and other similar but smaller seed companies, supplement selection practices with genetic modification techniques in the development of their seeds.
These giant conglomerates still capitalize on the original traits that made Midwestern corn and soybeans the best in the world. It’s gratifying when they still use the original brand names for marketing purposes.
Readers may contact Dr. Rosmann at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.