Hybrid Corn Pioneers

Steve Kenkel celebrates Shelby County, Iowa’s role in hybrid corn development

| July 2012

If you tell Steve Kenkel he’s corny, he’ll probably respond with a smile. That’s because the Earling, Iowa, farmer holds a two-day Hybrid Corn Pioneers Historical Expo every other year at his one-of-a-kind Hybrid Corn Collector museum. Among the rare items on display are an 1863 George W. Brown wooden corn planter, a 2-row Jones hand planter, an 1848 cylinder corn sheller and a field marker dating to the 1850s.

A sign at Steve’s museum reads, “Welcome To Shelby County — Hybrid Corn Capital of Iowa.” The greeting honors the history of the 18 seed companies that sprang up in Shelby County in the early 1900s. Some of the pieces displayed in his museum are connected to those businesses.

Steve’s goal is to help people understand the significance of corn to Iowa’s agricultural history. He also wants to highlight how hybrid corn development, in which Shelby County farmers were deeply involved, drove significant changes in American agriculture as a whole.

Comprehensive exhibit

Displays in Steve’s museum showcase corn-related implements, tools and memorabilia from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. But not all of the Expo displays are housed inside the museum. Steve uses a vintage check-planter to plant three varieties of corn commonly grown as early as 1850. An open-pollinated corn (Reid’s Yellow Dent), the first American corn hybrid (US-13) and one of today’s triple-stack varieties (Dekalb 62-97) are planted in three plots nearby.

“The corn plots readily demonstrate how the quality of corn plants has improved over the last 100 years,” Steve says. “It also gives visitors a chance to see what wire-checked corn is. That’s a process my grandfather used. I wanted to see what it was like too. By having the plots right outside the museum, I can explain why open-pollinated corn often ended up on the ground, why yields were so much less and how new hybrids spurred development of corn pickers and tractors.”

In the early 1900s, as scientists discovered how heredity influenced plant development and function, the process for creating more satisfactory corn hybrids was set in motion. “Scientists still don’t completely understand how hybrid vigor occurs,” Steve says. “But there’s no disputing the results. Scientists are now creating hybrid seeds with yield potential that would have astounded our forefathers.”


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