SEED CORN GROWERS in southwestern Ontario produce some of the best quality seed in the world and the reasons why are clearly exemplified by Jeff Wilson.
Wilson is the current chair of the Seed Corn Growers of Ontario. He and his wife Jennifer operate a fifth generation farm in Charing Cross, Ontario. Wilson says that when he started farming in 1978 with his Dad, a lot of things about the farm were different. At one point, they had dairy cattle, beef cattle, even chickens, and sugar beets were once a major crop for their farm. This year, he grew 170 acres of tomatoes, six acres of cucumbers, 60 acres of peas, 85 acres of sweet corn, 200 acres of wheat, 500 acres of soybeans, and 130 acres of corn, with 50 of those acres being seed corn. Wilson says through all that has changed around the farm since his Dad ran it, growing seed corn has stayed the same.
“Seed corn is a mortgage payer,” he says. “We’re very lucky to live in the area we do and have the option to grow it.”
DEDICATION AND DIPLOMACY
As a kid growing up in the area, he remembers detasseling corn through the summer and says that it has been a rite of passage in their neighbourhood for generations. He explains that everything about growing seed corn requires just a little more dedication. Hybrid parents are not quite as robust as their progeny and will not pop out of the ground the same way if cool weather comes. Planting is not just a once over pass either — and although the grower may decide when the ground is fit to plant that first male or female, the seed company dictates when you plant the next male or female.
“That could be a Sunday and you have to drop everything,” Wilson says. “You learn to be flexible.”
Growing seed in Chatham-Kent also requires a little bit of diplomacy at times according to Wilson. Small fields are an advantage because they allow for more small variety runs of seed than many locations in the United States but also demands good neighbour relations.
“You could be a really good farmer but if you have a neighbour who is not willing to help you get isolation, you are not getting seed corn,” he says. “You also have to watch out for neighbours that might put in a few rows of sweet corn in the garden.”
In a lot of cases, Wilson says neighbours will work together to form isolation blocks, which can be challenging on a crop rotation.
Becoming a part of the Seed Corn Growers of Ontario Board seems to be just a further extension of practicing that same diplomacy for Wilson, who says it has been a very positive group for him to work with.
“We all talk farming before the meetings — talk about what we want to try, what’s working, what’s not, and the feedback you get, it is like having your own private advisory board,” he explains.
Chris Nanni, administrative manager of the Seed Corn Growers of Ontario, says a grower like Wilson with such a rich history brings a lot of benefit to the Board. He believes the seed corn business in Ontario thrives not only for agronomic reasons, but also because of the amicable relationships in farming communities like Chatham-Kent.
Nanni says that they largely receive few complaints from growers about working with the seed companies and he credits that to a high level of trust between everyone involved. At the end of the day, everyone is working toward the same objective of producing some of the highest quality seed in the world.
“I think the corn companies that grow here would love to have Ontario’s microclimate replicated throughout the entire United States,” Nanni says.
Doug Young, a soil specialist at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus, says the region’s microclimate is ideal for growing seed corn but so is the soil. Where most of the seed corn is grown, the soil tends to have pretty good drainage.
“Drainage is really important, especially when you have mismatched parents,” Young explains. “Where you have to come back and interplant, if it rains between the time you plant the females and the males, you can get through and get your crop planted when it needs to be planted.”
Soil that lends itself well to seed corn production is medium textured, mostly loams but also some clay loams, which hold lots of water but still drain fairly well. Young says, typically, the organic content of these soils approaches four to five per cent organic matter content.
Wilson says that the seed corn growers are always working to protect that soil and have been promoting the use of cover crops to help mitigate the impact of all the extra field passes required for production. There is a growing trend to put cover crops in after the male plants are cut out and because seed corn plants are so small, there is much more growth than you would see in commercial corn. He seeds down oats, oilseed radish, and annual ryegrass on his own acreage.
Cover crop research has been promoted by the Seed Corn Growers of Ontario for years and continues to be conducted for further improvement of best management practices across the province.
SEED CORN PRODUCTION – DID YOU KNOW?
• The amount of seed corn produced in Ontario would be enough to supply half of all the seed needed to grow the whole province’s corn crop.
• Seed corn must be grown 660 feet away from all commercial corn and 1,350 feet away from all sweet corn.
• Sometimes only one of two seed corn parents are glyphosate tolerant.
• Seed corn acres are not typically the first acres planted each spring. On an average year, only a few acres are planted before May 10.
• Seed corn requires significantly less nitrogen per acre, though phosphorus and potassium applications are about the same as hybrid corn.
• Seed corn is harvested and dried on the cob to reduce mechanical damage to kernels.
• Average yields are much lower than hybrid corn production; 82 to 110 bushels per acre is common.
• Growers don’t negotiate their own contracts. All negotiations are managed between the seed companies and the Seed Corn Growers of Ontario.
• Companies sign seed contracts with growers in late April and growers cannot start marketing that corn until the contract is signed.•