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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

How a grass from the hot climate of Mesoamerica came to dominate the fields of frozen Minnesota

From the time of statehood into the early 1900s, Minnesota’s climate discouraged the growing of corn. Many immigrants from Northern Europe disbelieved the skeptics and set out to prove them wrong by developing special varieties of seed capable of growing corn in cold conditions. They were successful, and by the late 1930s, Minnesota had become one of the leading corn-producing states.

The ancestry of maize, the grain we know today as corn, dates back more than eight thousand years to a plant called teosinte. This plant grew in the hot, sunny climates of what became southern Mexico. It was such a critical food source for the Maya that they built temples in its honor and worshiped their god Yam Kaax, the patron of growing maize. The Inca and Aztec civilizations worshiped a sun god upon whom they depended for this vital food source.

Over thousands of years, maize migrated northward with advancing civilizations. After American Indians introduced it to European colonists in the 1600s, its nutritional value made it the preferred feed for livestock and a popular grain for use in many food products. Undoubtedly, early Euro-American farmers saw corn as the grain of the future — a crop grown in the warmer areas of the continent, but not in colder Minnesota.

Individual farmers and emerging seed companies took on the challenge of developing special corn seeds capable of growing in Minnesota. Beginning in the late 1800s, the central Minnesota community of Dassel accepted this challenge. During this period, immigrants, primarily from Scandinavia, came to the Dassel area. They were accustomed to cold weather and committed to farming.

The immigrants planted corn seed in their fields. When the corn stalks matured to the extent they could in the climate, the farmers identified the strongest stalks that displayed the best root systems and the most mature ears of corn. The ears from these selected stalks would provide the seed for research the following year.

However, using these kernels as seed depended upon reducing their moisture levels. If the seeds were not dried, their kernels would freeze during winter and lose their ability to germinate, or they would rot in the ground when planted. Without the convenience of electric power, the farmers found creative ways for drying the kernels. Some dried them by hanging the ears over wood-burning stoves in farm kitchens or in warm upstairs bedrooms.

Once the kernels had dried, farmers removed them from the ears using hand-cranked shelling and grading machines. To determine how well these kernels would germinate, they placed a specific number in rags or sawdust and kept them damp. The percent that sprouted determined the germination rate.

Farmers repeated the process of using specially selected kernels the following year. After several years, they developed new varieties of seed suited for Minnesota’s climate. Perhaps unknowingly, they had put into practice a variation of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection: the species that survives is the species that adapts.

Research conducted at the University of Minnesota aided these efforts. In 1893, using a similar process of selective reproduction, the university began work on early-maturing seed. One of the hardy varieties developed at the university was known as Minnesota 13. In 1905, the university made available limited quantities of its research seeds, including Minnesota 13, to emerging seed-corn businesses. As a result, several new varieties of Minnesota 13 seed became popular.

Efforts of the Dassel-area seed-corn operations, working in concert with the University of Minnesota, proved successful in developing new seed varieties suitable for the northern states. By 1910, farmers throughout the upper Midwest grew corn from the varieties of seed produced in the Dassel area. More than twenty individual seed-corn companies operated in this area during the first half of the 1900s. Dassel became recognized as the “Seed Corn Center of the Great Northwest.” The traditional Corn Belt expanded to include portions of “cold” Minnesota.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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