He was the rock star of corn.
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.
Unlike the music stars, he got no gold records, earned no fortune for it — but he did become famous. And more than a half-century later he has a fading 4-H scrapbook, plump with letters, photos, and newspaper clippings attesting to his accomplishments, which included:
• A state record corn yield of 179 bushels in 1950 for his first 4-H project, when he was just 10-1/2 years old. He’d just joined 4-H that year at Wheeler School and decided on corn as his project.
In an article he wrote for a publication about his feat, Lamar explained: “I broke it deep, rowed it up in 28-inch rows, subsoiled, and used 30 wagonloads of barnyard manure, 1,200 pounds of Vigoro fertilizer, 1,000 pounds of soda, and planted Dixie 17, thinned to 12 inches, cultivated once.”
“It was kinda like one big corn garden,” is his recall of the requisite one-acre plot. “I made the crop with our eight-year-old mule, Dolly. The older boys, whose fathers had tractors, made fun of me, called me Dolly. They said it was stupid to try to grow corn on less than 40-inch rows.
“My daddy was a pea patch farmer, grew some vegetables, a little cotton, and had a small country store. He only grew a small amount of corn to feed our two mules. Farmers who grew corn in that era were overjoyed with 25 bushels, and that was on good bottom land. They didn’t have the good varieties and good fertilizers that came later.
“My mother worked for shirt factory wages to buy the fertilizer I needed for that corn crop, and she believed in me every step of the way. She’s now near 100 and last fall was the north Mississippi dominoes champion in a nursing home competition.”
Lamar’s mentor, the late Prentiss County Extension agent W. T. Smith, “became my second daddy; he encouraged me to excel; his wife was my English teacher.”
• 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.”
• 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.
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.”