How organic corn triumphed over chemical corn
(The year is 1970 and as the scene opens in the Blue Room Cafe, known locally as Blue Room University, a group of farmers are discussing the pros and cons of growing corn the usual way and the new-fangled organic way. An excerpt from Gene Logsdon’s new novel, The Last of the Husbandmen. )
Now Mary mused, out loud. “I wonder if organically-grown corn might out-yield corn grown with artificial fertilizers?”
Hoots all around. “Before fertilizers, farmers were lucky to get 70 bushel to the acre,” Nan said. “Now we get 120 without hardly trying.”
Mary knew, from reading agricultural history, that yields of over 200 bushels per acre had been reported in virgin soils before hybrids, but she did not say so. She knew better than to try to sound learned in Blue Room University where grizzled, no-nonsense farmers were both professor and student. But Ben, her husband, came to her aid. “Well, be careful, Nan. That kid in Mississippi who grew 300 bushel corn in 1955 used a lot of manure.”
“You couldn’t raise 300 bushel corn around here on a whole Rocky Mountain range of manure,” Emmet, Nan’s husband, said.
“Probably not on that blue Killdeer clay of yours,” Mary replied. “But I kind of think I have already done that in my garden. I bet I could grow more corn my way than you can with artificial fertilizers on that pancake clay of yours. Even if I use open-pollinated corn.”
It was like someone had raised the bid a hundred dollars in a Blue Room poker game. They all looked sharply at her. It was not like Mary to talk uppity.
“Why don’t we find out,” Nan replied coyly. “Let’s have a contest. I’ll plant an acre of corn my way and you plant one your way. Could be interesting.”
“Well, it would hardly be fair. My garden plots are so rich I know they’d out-yield a similar sized plot in any of your fields.”
And so it was agreed, Nan and Mary making a big show of shaking hands while the men made jokes and urged them on.
Through the winter the community argued out the conditions under which the contest would go forward. It was finally agreed that the plots had to be right next to each other, to grow under exactly the same weather conditions and soil types, if the contest was going to mean anything. But this presented a problem for Mary. To be truly organic, she pointed out, her plot had to be on soil that had not been “poisoned and compacted half to death.”
“Well, if you’re on new ground and I’m not, that would be an unfair advantage for you,” Nan protested.
“Which proves my point,” Mary replied. “Your kind of farming is ruining the land.”
“Oh, I’ll still beat you with hybrids.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Where in the whole county might they find two plots side by side that met the proper qualifications? Emmet, sensing greater possibilities in the contest that the others as yet foresaw, suggested that Mary’s plot could be right at the edge of his large lawn, which had never been cultivated as far as he knew, with Nan’s plot in the field right next to it. That this location also happened to be almost directly across the road from his golf course entrance did not at first seem of any portent to the others.
Nan insisted that Mary could use only purely natural fertilizers and soil conditioners, and no pesticides at all, and that the plots had to be farmed by farm machine methods, not hand methods. That would mean that Mary could not cultivate weeds by hand and therefore could not plant as densely as Nan could, using herbicides to control weeds rather than row cultivators. Mary, on her part, insisted that Nan not use any natural organic fertilizers, no manure, no compost at all — only manufactured chemical powders and liquids. Nan promised not to sneak any manure into her plot and Mary no high-powered chemical fertilizer on hers. Irrigation of any kind was disallowed.
They had little inkling of the stir they were causing. It soon became obvious that they had touched many seemingly disparate agendas. That two women rather than two men were involved was no doubt the first item of interest. What did women know about growing corn? When the Home Economics Agent at the courthouse in Surrey heard about the contest, she immediately called the head of the Home Economics Department at Ohio State University’s College of Agriculture and she immediately called the editor of Ohio Today and strongly urged her to look into what was surely a great human interest farm story, featuring the woman’s angle for a change.
The article that followed pitted “Nature’s Acre” against “Chemical Acre” which aroused at least three seemingly unrelated groups to put their own spin on the contest. The New Feminist League trumpeted the role of women in agriculture. Organic Farming Today saluted farmers for finally recognizing the role that organic practices could play on the modern farm. And the World Fertilizer Institute pointed out, quoting Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, that without manufactured fertilizers, mankind would starve to death — even if, heaven forbid, Nature’s Acre won the contest.
Never were two plantings of corn attended with so much pomp and ceremony, so much pride and prejudice. Earnest discussion took place at Blue Room University over whether the signs of the Zodiac should be considered, seeing as how, according to old Nat Bump anyway, Scorpio was the best for corn planting. It was finally agreed that whatever the right or wrong of astrology, the corn in both plots had to be planted on the same day to insure equal footing with the weather gods and the moon goddesses.
That led to a heated argument over which day, weather permitting, would be ideal. All the younger farmers voted for a day in the last week in April, when, so the universities had taught them, chances were best for a high yield. All the old farmers protested, saying that was too early, too risky, too cold yet. They all finally agreed on May 10 or when beech tree leaves were as big as squirrel ears, whichever came first. In a compromise, it was decided that whatever the precise day, depending on weather, to plant no earlier than May 7. There was also lively debate over how the ground ought to be worked, over the number of kernels per acre to plant, and especially over how deep to plant the corn.
“An inch deep is about right, especially if the ground’s a little cold like it sure as hell will be in Killdeer.”
“Oh shit no. Two inches to be safe, to be sure of enough moisture. Those plots aren’t in real Killdeer dirt anyway.”
“An inch and a half is about perfect in my experience.”
“Depends. I always go for an inch and three quarter.”
“An inch and a quarter is better for May 7.”
Finally it was decided that these decisions should be left to the contestants because such considerations were part of the whole idea of which method, chemical or organic, was better.
Both Ben and Emmet offered to do the actual planting for their wives, but Nan sneered in reply. Mary had never planted corn with the horses before, but she said if Ben could do it, so could she. If her rows were a little crooked, she pointed out, there might mean more corn plants in them.
As it turned out, rain fell on May 7 and so both plots were planted on May 9 — just as well, Ben said. “This o-p corn won’t germinate in cool soil as fast as hybrids.” Nan used the highest fertilizer rate ever heard of for corn in Jergin County — 500 lbs of NPK along with a generous dash of every micro-nutrient recognized by agronomy as critical to healthy plant growth. Then she came back with a side-dressing of liquid nitrogen in June.
Mary plowed under ten tons of composted cow manure and then applied ten tons of chicken manure, which she said, contained all those micro-nutrients that Nan was paying big bucks for. She applied 200 pounds of expensive bone-meal and rock phosphate on the surface after the corn was planted. Then she side-dressed in July with every bit of mature leaf compost she had on hand, soaked in fish oil nitrogen supplement. “Broomsticks would root in that soil, it’s so rich,” Ben claimed. Both Emmet and Ben complained, good-naturedly, that if they tried to plant a whole commercial field the way their wives were planting their plots, they would go broke before harvest.
The corn grew vigorously, of course, and so identical did the plots look that Emmet put up two signs to identify them: “Nature’s Acre” in front of Mary’s corn and “Chemical Acre” in front of Nan’s. Soon another sign went up, at a somewhat discrete distance but not too discreet, from Nan’s plot. “Nan’s Arabian Horses. Reasonable. Inquire at the golf course.” Then a fourth sign appeared next to Mary’s corn: “Mary’s Herbal Home Remedies. Watch for sign two miles east on Twp. Rd. 59.”
Someone was then moved to put yet another sign right under “Nature’s Acre” which read: “God’s Acre.” The general speculation was that this sign was the work of members of the Country Fundamental Baptist Church of Linner, whose pastor took a dim view of chemical farming. Although he never admitted being the author, Emmet then added a sign under “Chemical Acre” that read: “Mammon’s Acre.” He figured that injecting a little religious controversy into the contest could only heat up the general interest.
The six signs inspired a whole volley of inscriptions. “Superstition Farming” sprouted over night in front of Mary’s plot, followed within days, or nights, by “Advanced Scientific Farming” in front of Nan’s. When neither the county highway department nor the two women objected, signs started popping up like mushrooms. “Coon Hounds, 497-2300.” “Fresh Eggs, Deman Farm.” “Join The NFO.” “Homemade Bread and Jams, Mabel Fridly.” “Gun Repair Jack Olsen.” “Prepare To Meet Your God.” “Killdeer Jerky at the Blue Room.” “Chemical Acre’s Seed Corn Donated By DeKalb”. That last sign inspired Ben, who was finding the whole development increasingly amusing. In front of Mary’s plot, he put up a proclamation: “Amish Bump’s Old Fashioned Braggin’ Corn. Foot Long Ears For Seed, fifty cents each. 14-inchers, a dollar.” When Lester Cordrey realized that if Ben Bump could sell his corn for a dollar an ear, he might make $20,000 from the plot, he began to tremble — “like I got the chilblains.” he tried to explain.
Banker Cy Gowler, who was getting too old to read written signs but was still able to comprehend cultural signs very well, could barely contain his enthusiasm as he watched the proceedings. After lunch with business associates in Surrey, he insisted that they accompany him down to Gowler. He parked in front the army of signs and beamed. None of his guests were impressed.
“Did you drive me all the way down here to look at a damn corn field,” one of them asked.
“Not the damn corn, dammit. Don’t you see. You guys think rural areas are losing business to consolidation. Look at that. Lots of business. It’s just gone underground. We gotta figure out a way to encourage this.”
“Doesn’t look to me like it needs any encouraging.”
The corn in both plots was knee high by the Fourth of July, was in fact every bit of 20 inches tall by then. By August, a clear difference in the two plots of corn became evident even if the view was somewhat obscured by a still growing number of signs. Mary’s open-pollinated corn was up to 12 feet tall and still reaching for the sun, while Nan’s hybrids topped out and tasseled at about ten feet. As the ears began to form on both plots, it was evident that there were more on Nan’s corn, but those on Mary’s were much bigger. Speculation, which from the beginning had favored hybrid corn, wavered.
But clouds were gathering on the horizon, both really and figuratively. A thunderstorm bent Mary’s corn at an angle severe enough to put even an average yield in doubt. Mary wanted to stake up every stalk, but the terms of the contest did not allow handwork.
“Don’t despair just yet,” old Nat told her. “That corn’ll straighten up some. The stalks will look like sled runners but the ears will develop.”
The wind did not faze Nan’s hybrid corn and she began to celebrate victory. Too soon. One morning she realized that something strange was affecting her corn. It started turning a sickly yellow, changing to a brownish pallor. At first, she thought someone had sneaked into her plot at night and sprayed it with some weedkiller that the corn could not tolerate. But when the pallor of death spread through cornfields all over the county, and then all over the Midwest, it was obvious that the whole crop had been stricken with some disease. The phones jammed at the agronomy departments of all the land grant colleges, and at every herbicide company and seed dealer in the nation. Plant geneticists scrambled to find an answer. Corn on the Chicago Board of Trade shot up the limit every day, as traders, — “the parasites who feed on our blood and sweat,” Emmet said — saw a short crop coming.
Strangely, Mary’s corn was unaffected. Indeed open-pollinated corn all over the nation was unaffected. Although that was not much relief to the corn industry because so few farmers grew open-pollinated corn, it was a key to the mystery. So was the fact that some hybrids, especially older ones, were also unaffected. Hardest hit were the newest, high-yielding hybrid strains.
Emmet, at the elevator, first heard what had happened and rushed down to Blue Room University to spread the news.
“We’re in deep trouble, boys,” he intoned. “It’s a fungus. Causes southern corn leaf blight. Almost all the hybrid corn breeders have been using Texas male-sterile cytoplasm, whatever the hell that is, to develop the new single cross hybrids we’re all using. A new strain of the disease, Race T they call it, really plays hell in hybrids with that cytoplasm in them. It’s killing almost the whole corn crop.”
There was silence around the room. A cornbelt without corn was not something easily imagined.
“Jeezus. The whole country could fairly starve,” Jake Lavendar said.
“What they gonna do?”
“The breeders have gone to Argentina to plant seed that contains other germ plasms not affected by the disease. They figure they can grow a crop over winter down there and have seed in time for next year. Until then, boys, it’s a damn good thing we got a lot of carryover corn from last year.”
Mary, of course, won the contest, sled-runner stalks and all. The Natural Farmers Society and the Organic Farming Association had a hey-day, and the Country Fundamental Baptist Church in Linner, held a victory celebration with a fried chicken supper for anyone who wanted to come. DeKalb was never again the preferred hybrid in the county although DeKalb had fared no worse than other corn.
The big winner was Ben Bump. Ever after he had a steady little income selling open pollinated corn seed every year to those few farmers who would never again have unbounded faith in agribusiness.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Excerpt from: The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life