An Evolution of Corn Production Techniques

From hand-sown corn growing to horse-drawn check planters.

| December 2006


Early illustration showing the “checkerboard” pattern created by a check planter.

Check, chee … check, chee … check, chee … That's the sound you might hear as the slide bar on a hand-check corn planter moves back and forth. Of course, if you are the one working the slide bar, you might hear a different sound. You might even make up your own sounds to the beat of the steady rhythm of the check bar.

When the first white settlers came to America, the natives introduced them to a new crop - corn - that could be consumed by both people and livestock. The natives also taught the settlers how to grow and use it. For more than 200 years after the Pilgrims came to America, corn was planted in the way the natives had taught. A farmer worked up a small area of soil with his hoe, dropped in seed and covered it with his foot.

As the corn grew, the farmer hoed the hill of corn to keep weeds at bay. Finally, he harvested the meager crop. Small plots of land the size of a large garden plot - perhaps an acre or two - were typical in that era.

As horse-drawn plows and tillage equipment were introduced, farmers could grow more corn for home use and livestock feed. However, planting methods remained nearly the same. Farmers planted using a dibble (a pointed implement used to make holes in the soil) or a hoe. An individual was capable of planting up to one acre of corn per day. Keeping weeds under control was a major problem. Using a hoe, a farmer would be hard-pressed to tend more than five acres of corn each season.

Weeds competed with corn for nutrients and water. Too many weeds meant lower yields. Usually, it took at least four hoeing sessions during the growing season to keep weeds from overtaking the field. The first hoeing was the most important because the weeds and corn were young and tender. It was easy to err and cut tender stalks of corn along with the weeds.

As the population moved west, more land became available for farming. Larger fields became the norm. From Ohio to Indiana to Illinois, farmers found fertile land with few rocks to impede cultivation. They raised more livestock, so they needed more fodder and grain. Corn production had to increase.