Talking Corn with Non-Farm Folk

Buckeye Farm Beat

Even my gardener friends don't know much about a corn plant's growing point or how many ears on a stalk or how plants per acre.

Published on: May 6, 2010

It's kind of amazing sometimes how the little things about agriculture strike people who aren't that familiar with the subject. Back in my days as a big city reporter, I recall explaining to the paper's editor that more than 99% of the state's corn plants had only one ear of corn. He was very sure he had seen many, many plants with more than one ear. I explained that probably along the outside row, he had seen multiple ears, but that was only on the edge where light was plentiful.

The next day he brought in four stalks of corn – puny sweet corn stalks each with two ears on them. "You are wrong," he gloated. So the following day I brought in 20 stalks of corn – robust corn 12 feet tall with big bounty-sized ears on them. Filled up half his office. I told him we could keep escalating this thing until his office was packed with corn stalks if that was what he really wanted, but he backed off.

This spring it was the heavy frost that iced up my friends lawns and raised eyebrows among the non-ag folks near my office. "That'll teach those farmers for planting so early," I was told by several of the flower gardeners. I tried to explain that the tiny corn plants were nestled down in a warm soil that probably prevented any damage at all and then further relayed to them that the growing point of the corn plant was still deep in the soil and protected from any kind of chill – even if the tips got frosty.

No, they were convinced that those gun-jumping farmers would have to replant all those little green rows that were nudging up through the old stubble.

Well, now the weeks have passed and they have come around to admit that maybe I was right. Those little corn plants are just getting bigger every day.

So now I have a new factoid I like to lay on them. I ask, just how many plants to you think there are in that field. "Whew lots," they say. "Couple thousand at least. Maybe 15 or 20 thousand. Lots of plants," they tell me.

Let's say that field is 10 acres how many corn plants per acre do you think there are?

"Hundreds," they tell me. "Hundreds per acre and thousands in the field."

That's when I relay that the local seed rep is recommending about 34,000 plants per acre for today's modern corn genetics. And last year the state averaged 28,200 plants per acre. You can see the numbers roll around in their heads – "340,000 plants in that 10-acre field right there really? Really? That's a lot of plants," they say.

So the next question they ask me is, "How many bushels of corn will that field will grow?"

Well, I begin to waffle, that's going to depend on the weather this summer and the rainfall and the heat units and pollination and weed pressure and...

Hey, I'm not the answer man, I know a couple of ag factoids -- which can only get you so far.