A History of Corn: Beginnings and Tall Tales of Farming Corn in America

More acres in the U.S. are planted to corn than any other crop, making "King Corn" the most valuable crop in the nation.


| November 2003



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Front-cover illustration from a Plano corn-harvesting machinery catalog.

Image courtesy Sam Moore

Editor's note: This is part one of a three part series about planting, cultivating and harvesting corn, with a focus on the machinery and techniques developed for planting corn. Click here to read parts two and three. 

Born in the Americas, corn fueled farms and inspired tall tales

Most of the 2003 corn crop has probably been shelled by now, and transported to bins where farmers wait hopefully for the market price to rise. In the old days, the corn harvest started in the fall and usually took most the winter to complete.

In fact, more acres are planted in corn than any other crop, which makes 'King Corn' the most-valuable crop grown in the United States, even though its price per bushel doesn't impress the farmer who markets his harvest.

In English-speaking countries, 'corn' is the most-commonly used name for that country's biggest cash crop. Thus, in England 'corn' refers to wheat, in Scotland and Ireland the term is used for oats, and in the United States, Canada and Australia corn is the common name of Native American maize, which originated in Central Mexico more than 3,000 years ago.

Corn, as modern American farmers know it, was cultivated in the Western Hemisphere for centuries before Christopher Columbus first noted its importance to people in the West Indies. Columbus described the newfound staple in his journal on Nov. 6, 1492: 'The land is very fertile, and is cultivated with yams, kidney beans, and another grain like panic (European millet) called by them 'mahiz' (maize) of very excellent flavor cooked or roasted or pounded into porridge.'

William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony for many years between 1622 and 1656, wrote about the spring of 1621 in his History of Plymouth. Many settlers died of disease and starvation because the New England winter was so severe, but Squanto, the last member of the Patuxet tribe, befriended the bedraggled survivors and taught them how to properly plant corn. He instructed them to plant four kernels within a small earthen mound, and then bury a fish in each hill to provide adequate fertilizer and moisture for the seeds. When the better-than-expected harvest came that year, Bradford was reminded of a saying attributed to the Roman philosopher, Seneca, 'That a great part of libertie is a well governed belly, and to be patiente in all wants.' Bradford went on to say, 'They begane now highly to prise corne as more pretious then silver, and those that had some to spare begane to trade one with another for smale things, by the quarte, potle, and peck; for money they had none, and if any had, corne was preferred before it.'