Seed Saving and Iowa’s Corn Train Gospel

published Jul 24, 2016
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(Image credit: Everrett Collection)

In Iowa, you can hear the corn grow.

The other night my friend Howard brought over some grass stalks to show me the sound. Corn kernels, like other grains, are the edible seeds of certain types of grass plants. He wanted to demonstrate the sound he heard growing up on an Iowa farm, so he pulled the stems of each stalk through its leaf sheath; one weedy stalk made the gentle popping sound he’d heard on hot humid nights.

“Sounds just like a bowl of Rice Krispies,” said another friend, who farms in the Finger Lakes region of New York. According to him, all rural people know that noise — not just those from the Corn State. Although a crop consultant dismissed the idea as hogwash, this is an example of how legends and logic are part of the work of coaxing food from the land. And no one can argue about what this sound broadcasts: the great potential for connections between people and plants.

The Most Important Tip for Great Grilled Corn (Image credit: Family Business)

Corn, the Great Provider

We got to where we are by observing nature and working with what we saw. For thousands of years, people partnered intimately with plants, making choices about what to pick and eat, which plants to help mate, and what seeds to save. Corn began about 9000 years ago in the hands of indigenous Americans, who selected and bred plants that didn’t look at all like modern corn to become the staple crop of many cultures. In these groups, people saw corn as the great provider, and thanked the Corn Mother for sustenance.

Today, corn remains at the root of our food supply, feeding us directly and indirectly, through livestock and as an ingredient in other foods. The crop is raw material for many industrial products, including fuel. While we may have a vague awareness the long shadow corn casts on our lives, we have come a long way from the close contact that transformed corn’s ancestor plants into corn.

In the last 100 years, commercialization has removed farmers from the breeding and seed selection process. Perhaps the last time a large group of Americans had intimacy with corn seed was in the early 1900s, when the Corn Gospel Trains ran in Iowa.

(Image credit: Iowa State Archives)

All Aboard the Corn Train Gospel

The special trains got their nickname because Perry G. Holden, professor at Iowa Agricultural College, had a missionary zeal for his project. His corn church traveled throughout the state, and Holden used his pulpit to teach people how to select and test corn seed. Holden organized the trains because of a poor corn crop in 1903. The following spring, 1200 farmers sent seed samples to the state agricultural college because they were concerned about facing another bad year. The trains covered 1300 miles in eight days, teaching farmers and even a high-school botany club about seed selection and the basics of plant breeding. People left with instructions on how to make a box to germinate corn kernels and evaluate the sprouts and seeds in an organized system.

The project increased production by almost a hundred million bushels across the state. The effort was so successful, it inspired similar trains to run in several other Corn Belt states. In Nebraska, the USDA also distributed packets of oats and Russian wheat.

“If the Nebraskans are as much stimulated as the Iowa farmers were by the first corn gospel train, it is believed that western Nebraska can be made as productive as the macaroni wheat districts in Russia,” a contemporary report suggested.

Perry G. Holden was connecting people with facts and skills. Even high-schoolers were trusted, and asked to become participants in the work of improving corn seed quality throughout the state.

(Image credit: Sioux City Public Museum)

What This Means for Today

We are so removed from food production and yet this model shows how much faith we had in ordinary people to solve their own problems. I remember the first time I saw a Swiss chard seed, gnarly as a meteorite and just as extraterrestrial. I was 25. I’d grown up in the country, but I cannot imagine learning how to handle corn as those farmers and high-schoolers had from Holden.

Of course, that was a time when farmers had more involvement with seed than they do now. Back then, seed saving was the norm. This meant choosing a portion of the crop to save and plant the following season. Holden built on that practice, teaching farmers what to observe in the field as they chose ears of corn for seed, and how to methodically test those ears to make the best crop possible. He helped farmers understand which ears should be discarded to keep the crop strong.

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers did the work of watching plants, and choosing which ones to eat and which seeds to grow. This moment of the corn trains was probably the last time American farmers were deeply involved in plant breeding and seed work. Since then, seed companies and university and private research have assumed that job.

For corn, this meant the development of hybrid seeds. (For a great overview on this and other changes in corn farming, read the chapter called “Heredity and Horsepower” in Craig Canine’s agricultural thriller Dream Reaper.) After WWII, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers doubled the whammy of hybrid seeds and spiked yields, making the adoption of hybrid seeds pretty universal in the U.S. Farmers grew dependent on seed companies, because the process of breeding these seeds creates kernels that won’t grow plants that resemble their parents.

In the last 40 or 50 years, consolidations in the seed industry have further narrowed the choices and control farmers have over what they plant.

For me, one of the greatest problems with GMOs is that farmers lose authority over their seeds. Having to buy seeds year after year, instead of saving them on the farm, reduces the choices farmers can make, which reduces the types of foods we can buy and enjoy.

Yes, there are advantages to seed companies, which can test for and treat seed-borne and soil-borne problems. But the current seed-buying environment deeply restricts the collaboration between people and plants that got us here, to this muddle of industrialized agriculture and a haze of questions. What am I eating? Why? And what should I eat? (Another summer reading hint: Simran Sethi outlines the limits we are facing as eaters by a reduction in biodiversity in her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love).

In the long shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the earliest farmers shopped for seeds from nature — not catalogs. I’m glad to know that there are efforts to restore the intimate relationships farmers once had with seeds. Activist Vandana Shiva has been advocating for seed rights and fighting against GMOs for decades. The Mexican group Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz/Without Corn There Is No Country is fighting for seeds and working against companies that control corn seed because not only are we losing plants and biodiversity as corporations concentrate on a few crops, but we are also losing the cultures tied to these foods and plants.

In Minnesota, part of the Anishaabeg tribes’ White Earth Land Recovery Project focuses on restoring maize and wild rice to a central place in tribal life and community livelihoods. Building strong relationships between growers and seeds is critical to this work. On small farms in Europe, collaborations are engaging farmers in the plant breeding process, and enabling them to have more seed choices in a seed purchasing environment that is highly controlled by the European Union.

In America, farmers are testing seeds and plant crosses in their own fields, with the help of farming organizations like Native Seeds and Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society, which has a farmer breeding club. This is called participatory breeding, meaning farmers are participating in the research process, bringing full circle the traditions that got lost during century where commerce defined the shape of the game.

There is room for commerce and close connections between people and plants. I’m not enough of a dreamer to think that we can rewind time and go back to any point in history that might seem better than here. But I do believe that romance will play a part in whatever steps we pursue. Think of how you think about summer — just the word nudging pretty thoughts of beach and breeze and time stretching like bubble gum. Such affection for ideas and hope for possible outcomes, whether a vacation or a new ear of corn coaxed by a Hopi or Iowan from the ground, are the ingredients we need for a good life — one where the farmer and the research have equally important roles to play.

A Very Small Guide to Plant Breeding, Hybrids and GMOs

Mark Sorrells’ plant breeding team at Cornell University helped me write these definitions.

Traditional plant breeding in a lab or in a field involves introducing the male parts of one plant to the female parts of another. This is kind of like dating. The researcher combines pollen and ovaries under a plastic or paper sleeve, and lets the reproduction process occur.

Hybrids have parents that are unrelated or distantly related to one another. This tends to make corn hybrids more vigorous than either of their parents. If seeds are saved and replanted from the hybrid, however, the magic ends. Seed collected from hybrids sprout unpredictable and often less vigorous plants.

Genetic modification is different from hybridization, which can occur in nature. Genetic modification involves taking traits from plants or animals that cannot cross without human intervention, combining them in a lab environment.