"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 the Navy
“I did graduate with good grades. But the Cold War was going on with Russia; we’d been fighting in Korea; there was Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis. If you were male, not married, or not in college, you were going to be drafted.
“Daddy and an older brother had been Navy submariners — Daddy was in a sub that sunk — so I joined the Navy the week before I graduated. The Monday after I got my diploma, I was sworn in and shipped to San Diego for training and was given submarine duty.
“It was one of the few places in my life I’d been where there were no cows, chickens, fields to plow, or crops to harvest. I was given specialized schooling, I got fed and clothed, I was in a close community of 50 people, including a lot of rednecks like me, and I loved it.
“I was twice Sailor of the Month for the entire Atlantic Fleet. I went around the world eight times. Then I got hurt, and could no longer qualify for submarine duty, so I took medical leave and came home.
“I went to school on the GI Bill, aiming to be an engineer, but calculus and I didn’t gee-haw. My father was still farming — he kept at it until he died — and he continued to grow corn, using Funk’s seed and getting good yields.
“My brother and I inherited the land and we planted pine trees, millions of them. Land that was pea patches, corn, vegetables, and occasionally cotton, now was in trees. I loved trees — no plowing, no cultivating: just plant ’em, watch ’em grow, cut some, and plant some more.
“In 1993, my brother decided to clear-cut his pines. I didn’t want to do that with mine. He sold his for a nice chunk of money. The next year, the monster ice storm hit and devastated my trees, costing me a bundle of money. Talk about tough luck!”
Today, almost 55 years after his world record corn yield, and after heart bypass surgery that “left me with so many arterial stents, I rattle when I walk,” the land where a teenage Lamar Ratliff grew his championship crops is still much as it was then.
“The last year Daddy farmed it, beavers had built a dam and flooded the corn field. Daddy blew up the beaver dam and got 750 pounds of fish off the field; a lot of ’em had corn in their bellies.”
While corn production nowadays is light years different from his world record days, Ratliff says he’s proud that “even in that era, with mule-drawn equipment and antiquated methods, we showed that if corn has access to the water and nutrients it needs, and if it’s carefully managed, it will produce outstanding yields.”