"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 1955, when Lamar was in the 11th grade, the big one — a state, national, and world record yield of 304.38 bushels.
“We took our plow to the blacksmith shop and had the wings cut so we could plant in 24-inch rows and get more stalks per acre. I started with 35,000 plants, then thinned to 30,000.
“At the same time we planted the field, we took some of Mamma’s old washtubs to the field, punched holes in them, and planted corn in them. After the corn in the field came up and started growing, we’d walk through and if a plant was stunted or just didn’t look right, we’d replace it with a healthy one from the washtubs. We made sure very stalk in that field was as perfect as it could be.
“Daddy and I practically lived in that field, walking the middles, pulling grass, and just watching the corn grow.
“We didn’t have calculators in those days, so in order to determine how many plants we had, we took big Grit newspaper bags and walked through the field, dropping a kernel from every stalk into the bags. For my world’s record crop, I ended up with 25,580 stalks.”
“Mississippi State University had set up a weather station in the field to monitor moisture, soil temperatures, humidity, winds, etc. After looking at all their data, they said the field location, between two ridges, provided almost perfect wind conditions for pollination of the corn, that the soil had good moisture-holding qualities, etc., and that, sheer good luck or whatever, we’d chosen about the best spot possible for our corn.”
From the time of his first national win, Lamar had increasingly been in the media spotlight, traveling widely (often by himself), making speeches, and meeting with various state, national, and university agriculture officials.
“I traveled all over the United States — New York, Washington (I was introduced in Congress, and my accomplishment was put in The Congressional Record), Midwest corn country, the western states. I was even featured in a nationally-syndicated “Strange As It Seems” cartoon strip.
“There was one month I made a speech to a different group every day. I got letters from the secretary of agriculture, members of Congress, university agriculture specialists.
“I was just a young country redneck kid from Prentiss County, Miss., and people were treating me like a movie star, asking me how to do this or that. I wasn’t used to all that attention.
“Jack Tubb, who was the state superintendent of education and went to school with my mother, said I was getting the kind of education you couldn’t get in school. But I was flunking algebra, and I wasn’t happy about that.
“It was all like some Shirley Temple movie — I was just a kid, and I wasn’t ready for it.”
In 1956, his senior year, having missed large amounts of school with travel and speeches and having had to take summer makeup courses, “I talked things over with my parents.
“Daddy said if I wanted to be a farmer, I should keep growing corn. Mom said I needed to get an education. I’d been there, done that with corn; I felt I’d missed a part of my growing up; I wanted to get good grades and graduate. My brother was excelling in school — he later became a doctor — and I wanted to make my mark, too.