The Long-Forgotten Ontario Corn Growers’ Association, 1908-1942

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Photo probably taken in the 1920s or early 1930s. One team of horses pulls the corn binder which cuts the plant off, ties it in a sheaf and elevates the sheaf into the wagon (power derived from the ground-driven ‘bull wheel’). At the silo, the cutting box chops and blows the material into the silo. Note the stubble: the corn was planted in hills of three or plants and was ‘checked,’ allowing cultivation in both directions. Credit: Leonard Pegg, Pulling Tassels.

When the Ontario Corn Producers’ Association (OCPA) was created in late 1982, the founders wanted to call it the Ontario Corn Growers’ Association (OCGA).  But the corporate registry office said no, that name was already taken. There was some momentary puzzlement about this unknown group – but no time for further research, and the intended new OCGA simply became OCPA. The incident was soon forgotten.

In the late 1990s, I discovered another vague reference to the Ontario Corn Growers’ Association on the University of Guelph web site. But, again, no time to explore further.

After leaving OCPA in 2002, with more spare time, I contacted the National Corn Growers Association and several of its state affiliates to inquire about origins. “We were the first, founded in 1957; there was nothing earlier,” emailed a longtime employee with the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

“Are you sure?” I emailed back, “For I have a photograph from 1928 of a corn yield award given by the Iowa Corn and Small Grain Growers Association.” Further checking revealed that in Iowa – as in Ontario – there had been a much earlier organization.

The archives of the University of Guelph contained more: annual reports for 1911, 1912, 1914 and 1917 for the Ontario Corn Growers’ Association. I also discovered that Leonard Pegg had reproduced the first (1908) annual report of the OCGA in an appendix to his 1988 book, Pulling Tassels: A history of seed corn in Ontario. Collectively, these sources tell the story of an organization which flourished for more than 30 years, attracting up to 1600 people to its annual convention and corn exhibition.

Leonard Pegg is the source for much of what follows.  He, in turn, secured considerable information from records of the former Chatham office of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAFRA) and from the former Chatham office of the Plants Product Division, Canada Department of Agriculture. Archie McLaren, former head of Farm Crops at the Ridgetown College of Agricultural Technology, also helped with Pegg’s research.

A seed dealer, J.O. Duke of Olinda (near Leamington ON), and the first to register a corn variety with the newly founded (1904) Canada Seed Growers’ Association, was instrumental in the creation in 1908 of the Ontario Corn Growers’ Association.  He was its founding president. Angus McKenney of Essex, one of Ontario’s first agricultural representatives (Ontario Department of Agriculture, later to be called OMAFRA), was secretary. The first OCGA convention was held in the Town of Essex in February 1909.  There were 28 founding directors from as far east as West Lorne ON, and more than 300 members.  The convention proceedings included speeches by Duke, Professor Charles Zavitz from the Ontario Agricultural College and Dr. L.S. Klink from Macdonald College, on topics such as seed corn selection, corn growing, fertilization, tillage, tile drainage, and marketing. T.S. Biggar, manager of the Hiram Walker Farm at Walkerville, said that corn grower organizations were also being formed then in adjacent states.

The annual convention moved around at the beginning – Essex again in 1910, Chatham in 1911, Tilbury in 1912, Windsor in 1913, Chatham in 1914 through 1916, and Kingsville in 1917 – but then moved permanently to Chatham from 1918 through 1942.  The Chatham site was the Armoury except for World War II years when it was shifted to ‘Hudson Sales and Service.’

A corn ear exhibition dominated the founding convention and all that followed. Corn exhibitions were where farmers chose new seed sources. The annual reports contain numerous photos of award-winning ears. Many Canadian and American farmers were convinced at that time that large, uniform, attractive ears were the best sources of seed for producing top-yielding crops.

Seed sales to corn silage growers in the rest of Ontario and Quebec were especially important.  Indeed, one reason for exhibitions was to inform eastern farmers that Southwestern Ontario seed was as good as that imported from the United States.

J.H. Grisdale, Director of Experimental Farms, Ottawa told them in 1911 to “Send us good corn and I can promise you a market that can take every bushel of good seed that you can grow.”

The corn exhibitions often partnered with other groups – the Chatham Poultry and Pet Stock Association in 1920 and the Kent Crop Improvement Association in the late 1930s.

There were lots of events in addition to speaker programs and corn ear competitions – sales of purebred Duroc swine and Shorthorn cattle in 1920, and a corn husking competition and hog calling contest in 1937.

Speeches on superior ways to grow and market corn were valued.  Usually present were the Ontario Minister of Agriculture, experts from the U.S., and the president of the Ontario Agricultural College.  OAC President Creelman told farmers in 1919, “the more we cultivate, the better it is for corn.”  (Research on herbicides and no-tillage came decades later.)

In 1914, Jack Miner of Kingsville ON, who called himself “a sort of converted Jessie James to the bird family,” talked about the rare Canadian Wild Geese: Thirty-two geese visited him first in 1909 (of which Miner shot ten) increasing to 350 in 1910.

The printed advertisements are intriguing. In 1912, W.C. Cowley in Tilbury promoted the Johnston Massey Harris Corn Binder that “handles tall corn, short corn, heavy corn, light corn, down corn, standing corn, all corn to your satisfaction.”  Maxwell corn shellers could be driven by “hand or power.” Alberta and Saskatchewan wanted settlers. The Ontario Agricultural College sought students.

Cold summer weather in 1917 in Ontario and the U.S. Midwest meant good seed was scarce the next winter – the dominant theme at the February 1918 convention.  Corn prices were then more than $4 per bushel ($60/bu in 2020 currency).  At the 1920 convention, farmers asked the Ontario agriculture minister, Manning Doherty, to locate a research farm in Southwestern Ontario.  The Western Ontario Experimental Farm was created at Ridgetown in 1922.

Devastation by the European corn borer dominated OCGA considerations during the 1920s. Though borer damage diminished during the 1930s, OCGA urged the Government of Ontario, repeatedly, to enforce the Corn Borer Control Act mandating corn stalks to be buried by plowing in autumn.  Enforcement required up to 100 field inspectors, and continued until 1947.

Low prices and corn imports were even greater concerns. OCGA convinced Ottawa to impose a 25 cents/bushel duty in 1931 on corn imported from the United States and Argentina. But corn imported for processing was exempt. (There were several distilleries, and starch plants at Port Credit and Cardinal.) In addition, large increases occurred in imports from ‘British South Africa,’ because Ottawa wouldn’t penalize corn imports from within the British Empire. Hence, Ontario corn prices remained at 40-50 cents per bushel – versus calculated production costs above 75 cents.

Transportation was a big issue. Corn by rail to Toronto from Michigan cost less than from Chatham and OCGA sought change. OCGA pursued tax incentives for artificial dryer construction for there was then only one Ontario dryer – at the Walkerville distillery (drying cost, 2 cents per bushel).  OCGA also wanted a grain terminal elevator at Windsor.

Dr. W.R. Reek, director of the Ridgetown experimental farm from 1922-1937 and, after that, the Ontario Deputy Minister of Agriculture, was OCGA president during the early 1930s. OCGA flourished into the late 1930s, though listed membership was then less than 150. Corn exhibitions were doubtlessly an important source of funding.

Despite these years of success, the last convention/exhibition occurred in 1942 and OCGA died about the same time. Details of its demise are unknown, but hybrid corn was undoubtedly the cause.

With hybrid corn increasing from 50% of Kent-Essex grain corn acreage in 1940 to virtually 100% in 1944, the value of OCGA corn exhibitions plummeted. Many OCGA leaders were seed producers and shifted their attention to the Ontario Seed Corn Growers’ Marketing Board founded in 1940. James Garner, then agricultural representative at Chatham and OCGA secretary for many years, helped champion the fledgling hybrid corn industry.  The Ontario Corn Committee began in 1939. More time spent on hybrid development meant less time for OCGA.

In any case, the Ontario Corn Grower’ Association which had thrived and been a dominant agricultural force for more than 30 years disappeared quickly. Today scarcely anyone remembers its existence.

Reference:

Pegg, Leonard. 1988. Pulling Tassels. A history of seed corn in Ontario. Blenheim Publishers Ltd., Blenheim, Ontario.

This is a revision of a column printed originally in Ontario Farmer in 2004. It’s re-posted here with permission.

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