Corn has been part of Nebraska’s history for more than a thousand years. The crop was cultivated and hybridized from its birthplace in Mesoamerica up north into what is now Canada, and from ocean to ocean. Humans and plants had adapted brilliantly one to another; humans crafting their culture and calendar to meet the needs of the corn and corn producing in return a cornerstone food and feedstuff.
In what is now Nebraska, Native peoples began intensive corn horticulture about 1,000 years ago, particularly along the areas rich with rivers and streams in southern and eastern Nebraska. Along with beans and squash, corn sustained tribal peoples and helped them occupy specific places for long periods. By the early 1700s, tribes such as the Omaha, Pawnee, and Oto were living in villages of a thousand or more people. Here, Indian people would raise crops that could yield around 30 bushels an acre. They also produced many varieties of corn for different purposes: corn ground for meal, corn eaten raw, corn to be popped, and corn grown to finish early in the summer allowing for early season consumption.
With the opening of the Nebraska Territory in 1854, Euro-American farmers with their own corn cultures came west to find land of their own. They, too, learned that eastern and southern Nebraska was good corn country. They also learned that different climate, rainfall, soil, weeds, and pests required different seeds and farming techniques. People learned and adapted. Scientists at land grant colleges, like the University of Nebraska, played an important role in understanding this new place and educating farmers on growing techniques. Trial and error and the knowledge produced and disseminated by the scientific community encouraged corn agriculture. By the late 1870s, corn was growing abundantly in Nebraska.
The rainy 1880s were boom years for corn growers. They made money; capital that they could invest in better equipment to grow more with fewer people and less land – a theme that resonates today.
More corn produced by fewer people led to crop abundance that drove prices down, urging a demand for new value-added products to consume the surplus. Corn proved an excellent animal feed, particularly for beef, and by the mid 1880s Nebraska was a leader in livestock feeding. By the early 20th century, corn farmers and entrepreneurs alike invested in value-added uses for corn. As early as 1910, people looked to corn-based alcohol to replace kerosene in lamps and creatively, to serve as a motor fuel: ethanol.
As corn continues to grow, so does the sustaining innovation used to raise it. And Nebraska is a national leader in agribusinesses who innovated corn production technologies. Use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow more corn per acre, development of hybrid varieties, pipe and pivot irrigation to water the crops leading to variable-rate irrigation, tractors and combines with modern technologies, GPS, and even to the use of iPads and apps to run farm equipment, developed a great industry that is ever-improving to raise more corn on fewer acres using fewer resources while caring for the environment.
Thank you to the Nebraska Historical Society for providing historical content.