Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Gun(n)s That Transformed Corn

Part I

 The first gun in our story is a person. Charles L. Gunn was hired in 1917 as a stockman and corn breeder for the newly formed DeKalb County Agricultural Association. Charlie spent his summers driving his Model T Ford to Idaho in search of high quality forage seed to improve the stock in Illinois.

Charlie Gunn c. 1945
 Charlie Gunn began working with open-pollinated corn to breed a variety more suitable to the climate in central Illinois. The result was Gunn's Western Plowman. This variety of corn yielded up to 61.25 bushels per acre, considered to be high production in the 1920s.

Charlie Gunn traveled frequently in his work as a corn breeder. He knew and was friends with many of the men researching corn in the fields and laboratories. He was familiar with the research being conducted by University of Illinois chemists on hybrid corn. In 1925, Charles met with Henry Wallace, US Secretary of Agriculture, who talked about the production potential of hybrid corn. 

Charlie pulled these many influences together and began his own research on hybridizing corn. Corn breeding requires herculean patience. It took Charlie 10 years before he had results that he could share. His new hybrid was ready in 1933. It out yielded the open pollinated varieties by 35%. He began commercial planting.

In 1939, Charlie's first commercial hybrid (404A, a double cross hybrid) was grown. DeKalb 404A is the most outstanding hybrid of the first great decade of hybrid corn. It was grown from northern Nebraska across Iowa and southern Minnesota, and east through north-central Ohio and southern Michigan.  It introduces higher yields for shorter growing seasons, moving the U.S. Corn Belt 200 miles north.  It is the first popular and most popular proprietary double-cross hybrid. DeKalb 404A seeds were sold for over 25 years with a total sales of 5.5 million bags.

Charlie devoted over 50 years to corn breeding. His contributions transformed corn and its production.

See the photographic tribute exhibit, The Gunn Behind the Hybrid, at the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association gallery in the Nehring building downtown DeKalb, IL. 

Part II of this story will be posted next week. Stay tuned!