The state of Iowa offers the road-tripper princely rest stops, complete with grand historical markers. For instance, the rest stop near Iowa City–home to the University of Iowa , the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the legendary Prairies Lights bookstore–is dedicated to the history of education in Iowa. I was delighted with the bookish decorations, which included giant alphabet blocks set along the wall. (S is for soybeans.)
Even a rest stop of modest scale and amenities had a long marker telling the history of the Amana Colonies.
At yet another stop, I was reminded of the quintessentially Iowan story of Henry A. Wallace, Roswell Garst, and the agricultural revolution they launched.
Wallace and Garst met in 1926 in Des Moines, Iowa, where Wallace edited his family’s newspapers and Garst sold real estate. In his free time, Wallace experimented with creating corn hybrids.* At the time, farmers saved the best-looking ears of corn from each crop for seed, selecting them based on uniformity and size. By the time he was fifteen, Wallace had already proved these factors did not necessarily predict which ears would produce the best crop the next year. Now, in his late thirties, he was trying to crossbreed plants to produce higher yields.*
Wallace invented hybrid corn and the concept of hybrid vigor. Garst, an Iowa farmer turned salesman, recognized their importance and demonstrated their value in practical ways that small farmers could understand.
Garst was so fascinated by the possibilities of hybrid corn that he bought several bushels of the seed from Wallace to use on his home farm. After several years of watching the performanceof Wallace’s high-yield, strong-stalked hybrid in his own fields, Garst asked Wallace for a franchise to sell the virtually unknown product in northeastern Iowa.
It was a literal case of betting the farm. Even in good times it would have been hard to convince farmers to buy expensive, genetically modified seeds** instead of using the open-pollinated kernels from their own fields. During the Depression it was virtually impossible. Garst had to come up with ways to prove that his advertising slogan, “An Astonishing Product–Produces Astonishing Results,” was the simple truth. His most successful tactic was the “half the increase” trial, in which a farmer planted both types of seeds. If the farmers’ seeds produced a typical yield (usually 25 bushels to the acre) and Garst’s seeds produced 45 bushels, Garst would get half the increase. Growing both Pioneer hybrid corn and their own seed corn gave farmers a graphic demonstration of the new corn’s value. In the worst drought in America’s history, Wallace and Garst’s hybrid corn not only grew, it flourished. In fewer than ten years, more than half the fields in America’s Corn Belt were planted with the new high-yield corn.
The green revolution that began with Pioneer hybrid corn had a dark side, including the effects of farm chemicals on the environment and loss of biodiversity. But for a country coming out of the lean years of the Depression, it was a miracle.
*Wallace came by his interest in scientific agriculture naturally. His grandfather and father, both also named Henry Wallace (a potential source of confusion for the careless reader), founded the influential farm journal that they imaginatively named Wallace’s Farmer. His grandfather was a former Presbyterian minister who who went on to teach the gospel of scientific farming. His father was Secretary of Agriculture under Warren Harding. Our Wallace, having spent some time as a boy with agronomist George Washington Carver, was experimenting with plant breeding in a small garden plot by the time he was ten. He later studied agriculture at Iowa State. Wallace went on to become Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture from 1933-1940 and his vice-president from 1941-1945.
**Not necessarily a dirty word. Humans have been fiddling with plant genetics to make bigger/tastier/more digestible/higher yielding plants since the first unknown innovator discovered the power of planting a seed in the earth in ancient Palestine. Says the woman who loves her heirloom tomatoes and apples.