Knee High by the Fourth of July

An ear of corn would likely make anybody’s list of top American summertime icons.  Whether its popcorn, sweet corn, or modern field corn and endless green Midwestern cornfields, it could be argued that nothing is as American as…well…corn. Today, field corn is used in thousands of products ranging from toothpaste, livestock feed, and crayons to biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and even the fireworks we see at Independence Day celebrations.

As a kid, you may have heard, “Corn must be knee high by the Fourth of July.”  A cute rhyme, but that old adage is only a quaint reminder of what lead to a good crop of 150 years ago. The field corn of today will blow past ‘knee high’ long before July, while maturing into mighty 12- to 16-foot stalks to be harvested next fall.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture began gathering data in 1866, corn yield was about 26 bushels per acre. And that was pretty typical for the next seven decades (see USDA chart).

By the late 1930s corn double-cross hybrids were in use and a rapid increase in yield just shy of one bushel per acre each year had begun.  That lasted for the next 20 years. 

An ‘agricultural renaissance’ of sorts occurred on American farms by the 1950s. The post-World War II years witnessed mechanization of farm equipment, continued improvements in crop genetics, and usage of new pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer that resulted in incredible yield increases averaging two bushels per acre each year over the 40 years.

Last year, American corn farmers achieved an astonishing average yield of nearly 177 bushels per acre across the entire nation (Minnesota was 194 bu/ac; Iowa was 202 bu/ac).  In some respects, the incredible growth, diversity, and development of corn’s 150-year success mirrors that of United States itself.

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