"I contacted state agriculture specialists and told them I wanted to shoot for 300 bushels or more. They pretty much laughed at me. ‘Impossible,’ they said, ‘it’s never been done — corn just can’t produce that much.'”
While Elvis and others were turning the music world topsy-turvy in the 1950s, Lamar Ratliff, a young 4-H member in rural Prentiss County, Miss., was shaking up the world of corn.
• In 1951, another state record, 182 bushels, still using garden fertilizer and small ear corn.
“We subsoiled twice a year, to 20 inches, and the soil was good and soft for easy root penetration and growth. Our mules pulled the subsoiler and other implements. Dolly was the best; she’d go through the rows of young corn and knew not to step on any of the plants.
“This time, we’d figured out a way to irrigate the corn, running water downhill from my daddy’s fish pond.
“We watered the corn three times during the season. It took seven days and seven nights to get water across the entire field. I’d get up in the middle of the night, go down there with a shovel and a coal oil lantern, wading barefooted in mud ankle deep, to turn the water across to another row.
“But it paid off, and now I was getting attention. After my first state record yield, companies gave us some 13-13-13 fertilizer and that made a big difference. We’d dump fertilizer in the irrigation water and you could almost see the corn change color before your very eyes. It was beautiful, and people came from all over to take photos.”
• In 1952, another state record, and the national winner, with 214.1 bushels.
An article about his feat in Mississippi Farmer-Stockman noted, “This champion yield of 214 bushels exemplifies a trend in American Agriculture — the Corn Belt is moving south.”
Funk’s had introduced a new corn variety, Lamar recalls. “Unlike the white, small-ear ‘mule corn’ we’d been growing, this variety had large ears and lots of weighty kernels. It was some of the finest corn I’d ever seen. They gave me some samples and it blew our minds in terms of yield and weight. It outgrew anything we’d ever seen.
“Where we’d been doing well to get one good ear per stalk, we now could get one really good ear and a second that was almost as good. I’d sit in class and calculate how many stalks and how many ears I’d need to get a certain yield.
“Daddy told me I was aiming too high, that it couldn’t be done. I was determined that it could.
“After that national win,” Lamar says, “I was determined to do even better. I contacted state agriculture specialists and told them I wanted to shoot for 300 bushels or more. They pretty much laughed at me. ‘Impossible,’ they said, ‘it’s never been done — corn just can’t produce that much.'”
• In 1953, “not so good, only 165 bushels. Still a state record that year, but a disappointment to me.
“For the ’53 competition, 4-H and FFA had said we could plant skip-row, so we planted watermelons and peas in the skips. I made the skips too wide and with irrigation, we ended up waist-deep in watermelon and pea vines.
“The pea and watermelon vines ran up the corn stalks, causing a lot of them to break over — corn stalks just weren’t meant to hold up half-grown watermelons.”
• In 1954, 218 bushels, another state record, “but I was barely edged out for the national win. I’d used a lot of sheep and barnyard manure, and now I knew what I needed to do to try for 300 bushels-plus.
“That was also one of the driest years on record in Mississippi. Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.), a powerhouse in national agricultural legislation, was promoting irrigation as a means of boosting crop yields.
“One day I got a letter in the mail that said to come to the railway station and bring a trailer to pick up a package. Someone had sent 500 feet or so of aluminum pipe and a 4-HP irrigation pump. To this day, I don’t know where it came from.
“So instead of using ditches, we laid the pipe so we could pump water to the north end of the field, and then we’d move the pipe from row to row. We got tired of moving the pipe, so we took it to the blacksmith and asked him to punch holes in it every 24 inches.
“He came up with an even better idea and put in cutoff valves. So, we were able to irrigate the field with a lot less work in moving pipe. We used that in 1954 and 1955 and it was a big help in boosting yield even more.”