SW Iowa farmer finds passion for corn hybrid industry

SW Iowa farmer finds passion for corn hybrid industry

Photo by Anna Hastert

In 1856, Shelby County farmers started planting open-pollinated seed corn.

Shelby County, located in southwest Iowa, was known for it’s highly fertile soils, which was well suited for corn production. Throughout the years, the county would break production barriers, earn various honors and set the stage for today’s corn industry with the evolution of the double-crossed, corn hybrid.

We’ll delve into the rich history of the double-crossed, corn hybrid in this three-part series. Steve Kenkel, a Shelby County farmer, developed a passion for the corn hybrid history. Kenkel will share his story, as well as walk us through the history of corn hybrids and how the invention revolutionized farming.

Kenkel tells me he developed a passion for corn hybrid history after stumbling upon a couple of seed sacks one Christmas.

“My mom sent me to the attic to pick something up, and (as) I came down the steps, I saw this bag,” Kenkel said. “I remember seeing an Altman and Best seed sack. My grandfather had saved them in the 40s and 50s. I brought them down, was talking to my dad and he says, ‘I think there were five or six seed companies in Shelby County.’ He also said one lived three miles from my home.”

Following his seed sack discovery, Kenkel says he searched history books for information about the hybrid seed corn business in Shelby County.

“I never found anything about seed corn, so I went to talk to people in the seed business at the time,” Kenkel said. “(All of) the owners had passed away, except one, but their wives were still alive. I went and talked to Mrs. Koesters. We talked for a little bit, and she said nobody did any history on it. After we got done talking, she said, ‘Make sure you go see Mrs. Kilpatrick.’ I went and saw Mrs. Kilpatrick. She said, ‘Make sure you go see Mrs. Best.’ Mrs. Best said, ‘Go see Mrs. Wilson.’”

It turns out, 18 seed companies once resided in Shelby County. The county also played a major role in the evolution of the corn hybrid.

“Alva Wilson, (of) Wilson Hybrids, and Franz Haas were the earliest leaders in the county. They were breeders themselves. In the late 1920s through the early 1960s, we had more seed corn companies than any county in the United States. We were the forefront of the corn hybrid revolution,” Kenkel said.

Tomorrow, Kenkel will discuss how double-crossed, corn hybrids revolutionized farming.

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