The Ontario Corn Committee – Still Advancing Hybrid Corn after 83 Years

OCC report collage

Hybrid test reports of the Ontario Corn Committee over the years. Photo credit: David Morris.

 

A group of corn growers and others could not have realized, when they met in early 1937 at the annual Chatham corn show, that they were starting an organization that would still serve Ontario agriculture 83 years later.

The meeting, organized by the Ontario Corn Growers Association (OCGA) with representatives from the Canada and Ontario Departments of Agriculture (CDA and ODA), the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) and the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association (CSGA), was triggered by the recent popularity of corn hybrids in the United States and growing interest in Southwestern Ontario.  Those present included Fred Dimmock who had been inbreeding corn at CDA research stations since 1923 – initially at Harrow and then at Ottawa – and L.C. Raymond who was producing ‘hybrid’ corn at McDonald College in Quebec.  (Raymond’s hybrids were actually crosses between open-pollinated varieties.  These and similar crosses imported from the northeastern U.S. were grown for silage in Ontario and Quebec until well into the 1950s.)

Following the meeting, a formal request was made to the Deputy Minister of CDA, supported by a petition from 110 farmers, that CDA encourage hybrid development.  The files of Ontario Corn Committee contain the original petition with signatures in pencil and a supporting letter from Paul Martin, MP.  (Paul Martin was then the Member of Parliament for Windsor and part of Essex County; his son, also Paul Martin, and Prime Minister of Canada from 2003-2006, says he detasselled  Essex County seed corn fields while a teenager.)

At a second meeting in late 1937, results of corn hybrid comparison tests grown that year at Woodslee, Ridgetown and Guelph were reviewed, and concern was expressed over “unscrupulous persons” selling inferior hybrids imported from the United States.  A committee, chaired by Dr. McRostie of the OAC, with reps from CDA, ODA, and the Ridgetown and Harrow stations, was created to take action.

The ‘Committee on Hybrid Corn’ met several times in 1938 and recommended establishing new corn breeding programs at Harrow and Guelph. Hybrid tests were done in 1938 and at more locations in 1939.  On-farm hybrid corn demonstrations were organized by county agricultural representatives.

By early 1940, the committee was considering how to produce hybrid seed corn in Ontario, especially of the popular University of Wisconsin hybrids.  Beginning that spring, Wisconsin inbreds were grown for seed at Harrow and single-cross hybrids were produced from these at Ridgetown.  The single-cross seed, in turn, was sold to seed growers and the resulting double-cross hybrid seed sold to farmers.  This continued for about 15 years.

The committee met with many delegations such as open-pollinated seed growers in 1940 worried that hybrid corn pollen was contaminating their seed fields. Hybrid seed quality was of continuing concern.

Twenty-five hybrids were approved for production in Ontario in 1941, though only six were recommended by the committee – five from Wisconsin and one from Pioneer.

On July 7, 1941, the committee renamed itself the Ontario Corn Committee (OCC) serving as an advisory committee to the CDA, ODA and the CSGA on matters concerning the breeding, testing, and recommending of corn hybrids, and corn publicity.

With Dr. T.M. Stevenson of CDA as chairman and Fred  Dimmock as secretary, the OCC operated with essentially the same members and work plan for the next 16 years, testing new corn hybrids for approval for sale, making hybrid recommendations, overseeing farm demonstrations, producing pamphlets on corn, and dealing with industry concerns. A farmer representative from the Ontario Crop Improvement Association joined the OCC in 1948.

The first Canadian-bred (‘Canbred’) hybrids came from Dimmock at the Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa in 1941, and some of these were later sold as ‘Pride’ and ‘Warwick’ hybrids. The Harrow station released its first ‘Harvic’ hybrids in 1944; one became popular quickly when marketed as ‘King 300.’

From the beginning there was dissension about the value of OCC tests and the requirement to ‘license’ hybrids before sale in Canada.  Farm delegations during the 1940s and 1950s asked for both continuance and discontinuance.  Seed companies did the same.  Efforts to eliminate licensing came also from researchers and government reps; a 1953 motion to seek discontinuation failed by only a 9:11 count.  The license requirement remained for another 40 years.

Hybrid recommendations for farmers were even more controversial, especially since these were often based on personal opinions and negotiations with suppliers.  Some years no recommendations were issued.  Sometimes Ridgetown, Guelph and Kemptville made their own. In 1943, the Essex and Kent Corn Producers’ Cooperative Association developed a recommended list containing only Pioneer, Funk and DeKalb hybrids, and one white hybrid from Iowa.  Performance data were never provided.

There were not enough white corn hybrids to meet the needs of the Chatham-based White Corn Company; supplying Kellogg’s was a big issue in the late 1940s.  But Kellogg’s soon learned to make corn flakes from yellow corn and the interest evaporated.

The number of approved and/or recommended hybrids was always an issue – always too many. By 1945, the number of recommended hybrids had grown to 46.  In 1947, the Essex and Kent Corn Producers’ Cooperative Association said that they had all the hybrids necessary and wanted no more. But by 1955, 62 hybrids were recommended, growing to 102 in 1959.  Recent OCC listings have over 200 hybrids.

Because of the dissension, growing demands from farmers for hybrid performance data and, perhaps, a change in its membership, the OCC changed substantially during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Corn performance tests were established across the province where all licensed and marketed hybrids were compared annually and test results were published.  The OCC became much more active in coordinating and making recommendations on other corn research and industry needs.

The Ontario Corn Heat Unit (CHU) hybrid and maturity-zone rating system was introduced in 1964, based on research by Murray Brown and Lyman Chapman at the Ontario Research Foundation.  (Dr. Brown later joined the OAC.)  Before then, recommendations were made for up to seven maturity zones based on length of the growing season.

A significant problem with the new system was that ‘adapted’ hybrids at Guelph and Ottawa were not as dry at harvest as were those in the Southwest.  Hence, the committee defined ‘hybrid maturity’ for CHU purposes as an across-Ontario gradient of grain moisture percentage ranging from 40% at maturity in coolest areas to 28% in Essex. Dr. Wendell Snow, then head of Farm Crops at Ridgetown, termed this the ‘corn crib correction factor’; corn in higher CHU zones needed to be dryer before harvest because the corn cribs there were wider and the winter weather warmer.

More than 55 years later, the Ontario Corn Heat Unit system – with improvements made occasionally – continues to serve effectively.

Representatives of the Ontario Corn Producers’ Association (OCPA) joined the OCC soon after OCPA was created in 1983 and the membership has evolved since to include other industry reps.

A major change occurred in 1996 when Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada terminated corn hybrid licensing.  The OCC continues to operate corn performance tests, with results still valued by corn farmers, and now distributed via the Internet.  In 2019 the OCC conducted hybrid performance tests at 19 test sites.

The Ontario Corn Committee has been blessed with a small number of mostly long-serving secretaries who kept excellent records.  They were James Garner (ODA agricultural representative, Chatham), 1937-41; Fred Dimmock, 1941-57; George Jones (OAC, to become part of the University of Guelph), 1957-70; Archie McLaren (Western Ontario Agricultural School, now Ridgetown Campus, University of Guelph), 1970-90; David Morris (crop specialist, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food), 1990-93; Gordon Schiefele (Ridgetown), 1993-97; and David Morris (now Owen Sound-based crop consultant), 1997-present.

They kept accurate records – perhaps sometimes overly accurate, as in McLaren’s recording in 1972 of a statement that “grain sorghum has no *?x place in Ontario at this time.” (This followed several years of unrewarding tests.)

And the job could be trying. George Jones’ summation of a December 1958 meeting ends with: “At this point the secretary departed in spirit if not in body and very shortly the meeting was adjourned.” Fortunately George came back to take minutes the next year, and the record continued.

This has been a remarkable organization.

Acknowledgements

David Morris, of Owen Sound Ontario, and long-serving secretary of the Ontario Corn Committee, provided minutes of the committee dating back to 1937. They are the basis for most of what’s provided above. Another important source was Leonard Pegg’s book Pulling Tassels, published by Blenheim Publishers Ltd in 1988.

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