The method of crossbreeding plants to produce a “hybrid” that is stronger, resists drought or disease, and produces more bushels per acre did not become commercially widespread until the 1930s. At that time, professional plant breeding companies began to develop higher yielding types of corn, wheat, oats, rice, barley, and other crops.
In the 1920s, Nebraska farmers had to use trial-and-error. During harvest, they set aside the fullest, best-looking ears of corn, cleaned the seeds, and saved them to plant next year.
“So when you were picking corn by hand, we always had what we called a washtub on the side. And you seen an ear of corn that … is really a good looking ear while you were picking. You’d throw that good looking ear into that tub. Why then you’d unload that and then … you’d shell that and then you’d use that for seed. And that’s what you’d call open pollinated corn.” — Clyde Ehlers (Quicktime required)
Hollis Miller’s grandfather saw a business opportunity in seeds. During the corn harvest, he carefully picked out the best ears, shelled the corn and cleaned the seeds. He did the same for oats and wheat. He stored the seeds and then sold these seeds to other farmers to use for future crops.
“In those days to get your seed for your next year’s planting, they went out in the field, and they would go through and pick out quality ears. And then sometimes in the wintertime they would take those ears of corn down…They took the round kernels off of, out of the ear and the fine kernels off the end of the ear. Then, the rest of the ear they would run it through a hand sheller. And that’s what they used for their seed in the spring year. They did that all during the 20s…The seed oats business, was that they’d clean it and tried to get all the chaff and everything off of it and they run it over a little mill that we hand cranked on…Cleaned the oats … the same way with the wheat… They tried to get the good-looking quality seed.” — Hollis Miller (Quicktime required)
Written by Claudia Reinhardt.