The Pioneers of Hybrid Corn in Canada

This is a revision of a column printed originally in Ontario Farmer in 2004. It’s reposted here with permission. The original column was a sequel to another one describing origins of hybrid corn in all of North America. It has been re-written and is located at https://tdaynard.com/2019/10/25/a-brief-history-of-the-hybrid-corn-industry/ . This column contains the names of more people than is my norm but I feel it important that these individuals (mostly corn breeders) be recognized.

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The breakthrough discovery in 1919 by researcher Donald Jones in Connecticut on how to use double-cross corn hybrids led immediately to the establishment of many public corn inbreeding programs across North America.  One of these was at the newly renamed Dominion Experimental Station at Harrow, Ontario (created originally in 1909 as the ‘Tobacco Station’) where A.E. Mathews from the Central Experimental Farm, Canada Department of Agriculture, Ottawa began corn inbreeding in 1923.  When Mathews died soon afterwards, the work was continued by Dr. Fred Dimmock who spent his summers breeding corn at Harrow while returning to his home base in Ottawa in the off seasons.

Unfortunately, the European corn borer also came to Essex County in the early 1920s, after first appearing first near St. Thomas Ontario in 1909 or 1910.

(Note that this is before the first report of corn borer in the United States near Boston Massachusetts in 1917. The arrival in St. Thomas was blamed on a broom factory that imported broom-corn from central or eastern Europe. By comparison, the European corn borer did not arrive in Illinois until about 1939, and in Iowa a year or so later.)

The resulting damage was so severe that grain corn acreage in Essex and Kent Counties declined by 75% from 1922 to 1928. Yield losses were 100% on many farms. The Harrow corn breeding nursery was virtually destroyed during the devastating years of 1926- 1928. All breeding work was then stopped at Harrow and Dimmock shifted his inbreeding program to Ottawa, including what genetic materials remained from the catastrophe at Harrow.

By the early 1930s, the severity of damage caused by the insects had abated somewhat – in part because of a new provincial mandate that all corn stalks be plowed under 100% before winter – and corn acreage slowly recovered.

Hugh Ferguson is said to be the first Canadian farmer to grow a hybrid corn crop, in 1934 at Woodslee, using seed imported from Wisconsin. Interest in hybrids grew rapidly, thanks to their higher yields and stalk strength, even though they were very late in maturity.

Corn breeding resumed at Harrow in 1939 under the supervision of Dr. G.F.H. Buckley and his assistant Glenn Mortimore.  ‘Mort,’ who I knew well, became the corn breeder when Buckley retired in 1958. Although Harrow inbreds and hybrids became important to Canadian farmers in the years to follow, the U.S. was the sole source of hybrid varieties as usage expanded from about 10% of Kent and Essex corn acreage in 1939, to 50% in 1940, to virtually 100% in 1944.

Especially valuable were inbreds and hybrids from the University of Wisconsin breeding program of Dr. Norman Neal.  A New Zealander, Neal arrived in Wisconsin in 1920 wanting to study perennial forages. But fortunately for corn farmers in the northern Corn Belt, he was persuaded to breed corn instead. It was a ‘Wis-bred’ hybrid that Hugh Ferguson first grew.

My classmate and friend, Jim Cooper of Ridgetown, and former corn breeder for T.C. Warwick and Sons at Blenheim, recalls how Dr.  Neal was a regular visitor to Ontario and an advisor to Jim’s breeding program until the 1970s when Norman was more than 70 years old.

Oliver Wilcox grew the first hybrid seed in Ontario at Woodslee in 1938 (42 ½ bu of seed from one acre) using single-cross parents imported from Wisconsin. Wilcox, then a student at the Ontario Agricultural College, credits Professor G.P. McRostie for triggering this initiative. Wilcox later partnered with Tom Pogue and A.B. Reid in creating Essex Hybrids at St. Clair Beach, Ontario, and was killed in World War II.

The success of Wisconsin hybrids led to the creation in 1939 of a system whereby Wisconsin inbreds were self-pollinated to produce more inbred seed at the Harrow station, and single-cross hybrids were then produced by crossing pairs of these inbreds at the Ridgetown Experimental Farm. The resulting single-cross seed was then turned over to selected seed corn growers to produce double-cross hybrid seed for sale to farmers.  Initially called ‘Wisconsin’ hybrids, these they were renamed ‘Canada’ hybrids in 1940.  For example, ‘Wisconsin 606’ became ‘Canada 606.’  The Harrow-Ridgetown program produced more than 50% of Canadian hybrid corn seed planted by 1947, but was discontinued in 1953 because of the then market dominance by privately produced/owned corn hybrids.

Some well-known seedsmen growing ‘Canada’ hybrids were Ian Maynard and Nap King in Kent County – and Adrien Tellier and the three founders of Essex Hybrids in Essex County.  There were another 10-15 smaller producers/dealers of ‘Canada’ hybrids during the 1940s.

Private hybrids were also popular from near the beginning.  Jim Jubenville began growing Pioneer hybrid corn on his Tilbury farm in the late 1930s.  In 1940, he secured Pioneer’s Canadian marketing rights and began producing hybrid seed.  Pioneer later bought the business back from Jubenville, and moved it to Chatham. The DeKalb Agricultural Association of Illinois established a Canadian company at Tilbury in 1941 (moved to Chatham three years later). Jim Grant at Cottam first produced Wisconsin hybrid seed in 1939 and, in 1942, began growing/marketing hybrids supplied by Funk Brothers in Illinois. Essex Hybrids began producing Pfister Associated Growers (PAG) hybrid seed in 1946.  Many other Canadian corn seed companies arose in the years to follow.

In 1946, Nap King at Pain Court produced the first Canadian-bred hybrid, ‘Harvic 300,’ developed using two Harrow inbreds and two U.S. inbreds. Nap renamed it ‘K300’ as one of his ‘Golden Seal Hybrids.’ Other Harvic hybrids were also marketed under other commercial names.  ‘Harvic’ came from ‘Harrow’ and ‘Victory’ (a reference to World War II). Nap subsequently developed a seed production and marketing arrangement with Pride Seeds in Wisconsin in 1950.

The hybrid, ‘Pride 5,’ introduced in 1958, and promoted actively by Professor George Jones at the Ontario Agricultural College, was the first widely grown hybrid corn in many sub-2900 corn-heat-unit regions of Ontario during the early-to-mid 1960s.

During the early hybrid era, all grain corn (known then as ‘husking corn’) was harvested on the ear and stored and dried naturally in cribs.  But because the germination percentage of crib-managed corn was too low for hybrid seed corn production, artificial drying was needed.  Before 1939 there were only two artificial corn dryers in Ontario – one at Walkerville near Windsor, used to dry corn for distilling, and a seed corn dryer at the Harrow station (followed soon by one at Ridgetown).

Doug Bailey at Chatham, who began working for Jim Grant in 1952, recalled Jim’s story of how, in 1939, he converted a small pig barn into a seed corn dryer, complete with movable barriers to reverse the air flow periodically to ensure even drying.  The fan was run by a tractor and the burner fuel was coal.  Doug managed the dryer at night, while bagging the dried, shelled corn kernels.  Seed was later graded and sized, and then rebagged for retail during the winter.

Nap King’s first seed corn dryer was a double corn crib with a central blower and a coal-fired burner.  When it burned in 1947 (along with most of his other seed-business buildings at Pain Court) he built a second dryer of similar design.  Similar coal or wood-fired dryers were common for other early seed producers.

Dr. Lorne Donovan succeeded Fred Dimmock at Ottawa in 1961.  Collectively, they produced many early-maturing inbreds.  Several companies used these to produce the superior hybrids which triggered a rapid expansion in Ontario grain corn acreage during the 1960s and 1970s.  ‘United 108,’ an important early hybrid, was a single cross between two Ottawa inbreds.

Dr. R.I. (Bob) Hamilton – who had been breeding corn before then at the Agriculture Canada research station at Brandon, Manitoba – succeeded Donovan at Ottawa in 1983, followed by Dr. Lana Reid in 1998.  This breeding program continues today. Serious corn inbred development was initiated at the Ontario Agricultural College by Dr. Ed Gamble in 1956.  Dr. Lyn Kannenberg and Dr. Bruce Hunter assumed the responsibilities in the late 1960s, followed by Dr. Elizabeth Lee in 1998. Liz located her breeding nursery on our farm near Guelph for about 19 years.

The first public corn breeding program in Canada was started by Dr.  L.S. Klink at Macdonald College (now part of McGill University) in Quebec in 1907. The first ‘hybrids’ from Macdonald were actually varietal hybrids (crosses between open-pollinated varieties) and these enjoyed some success grown for silage in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.

The earliest-maturing corn variety in the world, Gaspé Flint that has only eight primary leaves, was discovered growing in Quebec by Dr. R.I. (Bob) Brawn, a corn breeder who came to Macdonald after Dr. Klink.

Valuable corn inbreeding programs followed both there and at the University of Manitoba and the Agriculture Canada station at Morden, Manitoba. Dr. W.A. (Bill) Russell, renown for his accomplishments as a corn breeder at Iowa State University, was raised in Manitoba and began his career as a corn breeder at Morden He succeeded S.B. Helgason who began the corn breeding program there in 1939. Dr. John Giesbrecht followed Russell as the corn breeder at Morden.

Some of the world’s best very-early-maturing inbreds originated at Morden. One Morden inbred was a parent of the legendary early hybrid, Pride 5. The University of Manitoba and Morden programs have since been terminated.

After Glenn Mortimore’s retirement in 1975, corn breeding continued at Harrow under the respective leadership of Dr. Tom Francis, Dr. Domenico Bagnara, and Dr. Dick Buzzell, before being terminated in 1983.

Other Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada were Dr. M.D. MacDonald at Lethbridge Alberta, Dr. M. Hudon and Dr. M.S. Chiang (breeding for corn borer resistance) at St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, and Dr. I.S. Ogilvie at L’Assomption, Quebec.

In a table below, I have attempted to list all the individuals who have served as commercial corn breeders in Canada since the introduction of hybrid corn. There are more than 40 names in the table and I am sure that I am missing some. Commercial breeding has dominated Canadian inbred and hybrid development since the 1970s, and the collective contribution of private corn breeders to Canadian agriculture has been huge.

But corn could not have achieved its present stature in Canadian agriculture without public breeding. Because the origin of inbred parents for commercial hybrids is rarely identified, farmers are seldom aware of the importance – both historic and present – of public breeding in corn hybrid development.

Canadians, both food producers and food consumers, have benefited immensely from the efforts of both public and private corn breeders.

Canadian private-sector corn breeders
First Name Last Name Company Year first employed
Ardeshir Ahmadzadeh Hyland (W.G. Thompson) 2007
Ardeshir Ahmadzadeh Dow 2010
Gary Bettman Dekalb 1983
Huey Chang Pfizer Genetics 1970s
Edward (Ed) Coatsworth T.C. Warwick and Sons 1960s
Travis Coleman Pioneer 2014
James (Jim) Cooper T.C. Warwick and Sons 1969
James (Jim) Cooper Pickseed 1976
Michael (Mike) Cramer Allellix 1970s
Michael (Mike) Cramer Limagrain 1970s
Thomas (Tom) Crozier Stewart Seeds 1967
Thomas (Tom) Davidson Cargill 1980s
Adrian de Dreu Syngenta 2000
Adrian de Dreu De Dell 2000s
Michael (Mike) Enerson Cargill 1980/81
Edward (Ed) Fonseca Dekalb 1980s
Thomas (Tom) Francis Northrup King 1980
Gustavo Garcia Pioneer 1998
John Giesbrecht Self employed, alliance with KWS 1970s
Ramsis Girgis United Cooperatives of Ontario 1960s
Francis Glenn T.C. Warwick and Sons 1974
Francis Glenn Pfizer Genetics 1977
Francis Glenn Glenn Seeds 1980
Robert Glenn Glenn Seeds 2004
Gustavo Gonzalez-Roelants DeKalb/Monsanto 2003
Ian Grant Allellix, then Pioneer 1970s
Steve Hasak Hyland (W.G. Thompson) 1977
Leon Hendrickx Pioneer 2009
Alejandro Hernandez First Line 1987
Bruce Hunter Ciba-Geigy 1995
Bert Innis Mycogen 1970s
George Jones Stewart Seeds 1971
Charles Knoblauch Maple Leaf Mills (United)-Asgrow 1983
Philip (Phil) Krakar United Cooperatives of Ontario 1970s
Steve Kuzir Pride Seeds (King Grain) 1980s
Srecko (Felix) Lauc Maple Leaf Mills (United)-Asgrow 1970s
Srecko (Felix) Lauc Hyland (W.G. Thompson) 1975
Sresko (Felix) Lauc AgriSeed 1980s
William (Bill) Leask Maple Leaf Mills (United)-Asgrow 1976
Donald (Don) LeDrew Dekalb 1977
Margo Lee Glenn Seeds 2013
Rafael Mateo Monsanto/Bayer (DeKalb) 2006
Wallace (Wally) Migus Dekalb 1985
Jean Marc Montpetit Pioneer 2009
Edward (Ed) Peterson Funk’s 1980s
Jon Popi DeKalb/Monsanto/Bayer 1997
Vladimir (Vlado) Puskaric Pioneer 1983
Frank Scott-Pearse Pride Seeds (King Grain) 1960s
William (Bill) Sieveking Maple Leaf Mills (United) 1960s
Bruce Skillings Ciba-Geigy 1995
Darrel Tremunde Dekalb 1990s
Antoon Van der Reijden Ag Reliant Genetics 2000
Mohan Vatticonda Cargill, then Mycogen, then Dow 1980s
Stipe Vujevic Hyland (W.G. Thompson), then Dow 1999
John (Jack) Watson Pioneer 1969
Shawn Winter Maizex 2005

 

I’ll be most appreciative of notifications of errors and omissions. TerryDaynard@gmail.com .

Sources of information:

Several published sources are listed below. However, much of the content of this column comes from personal interviews with Canadian corn hybrid ‘pioneers’ – many of whom are no longer living. These include: Doug Bailey, Bob Braun, Ed Gamble, George Jones, Nap King (aka Napoléon Roy) and Glenn Mortimore. Thanks also to Byron Beeler, Jim Cooper, John Cowan, Tom Francis, Gustavo Garcia, Francis Glenn, Gustavo Gonzalez-Roelants, Bruce Hunter, Peter Hannam, Paul King/Roy (son of Nap King/Roy), Doug Knight, Bill Leask, Don LeDrew, David Morris, Bob Pryce, Peter Robson, Marty Vermey and Shawn Winter – all very much alive – for their extensive help and historical knowledge provided during the writing of this article.

Giesbtecht, John. 1976. Corn Breeding in Manitoba. Canada Agriculture 21 (4): 22-23.

Keddie, P.D. 1974. The Corn Borer Period, 1923 to 1940. The Effects of an Insect Pest on the Production of Corn for Grain in Southern Ontario. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Ontario 125: 10-22.

Miller, Win. 1999. For Love of the Land, Biography of Napoleon U. Roy). Published by Roy Investment Ltd.

Pegg, Leonard. 1988. Pulling Tassels. Blenheim Publishers Ltd. This is undoubtedly the best published source of information on the Ontario corn seed industry from about 1900 to 1950.

I am also indebted to Dr. Lana Reid (Ottawa) and Debbie Lockrey-Wessel (Harrow) for providing unpublished copies of the histories of corn breeding in Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, especially at the Central Experimental Farm (Ottawa) and the research station at Harrow.

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