Farming Column – October 25, 2012
Thursday, October 25, 2012
In many ways, those tiny seeds that grow into the food on our dinner table or the flowers, trees and other plants we enjoy are truly a miracle. Contained in that tiny seed is an embryo and food supply that, with the right conditions, sprouts, grows and develops into a useful crop or plant of some kind.
From the time our early ancestors came to this country until now, seeds have continued to be an important part of our livelihood. History tells us that early Pilgrims started growing corn and garden crops to feed themselves. Some seeds came with them while others like corn were here and we started planting them.
When that tiny seed, and they do vary in size, is planted, several things are needed to help it germinate and grow. These include the right temperature and amount of moisture, oxygen and sometimes light or darkness. Local farmers know when conditions are right to plant their seeds in the soil.
With most crops, when the seed germinates, it sends a root down to get a food supply from the soil. Then, it turns back up to emerge through the ground, a remarkable process when one thinks about it.
Seeds can live or be viable for many years. They can lose some of their ability to germinate as years go by, but many are still able to grow. Unfortunately, some weed seeds can live in the ground for more than 20 years and still be able to germinate.
Then, within that marvelous seed are certain genetic characteristics. These indicate things like the size of ear of corn, length of kernels or the size and number of soybeans on a plant. From the time our ancestors started planting crops, they attempted to improve them. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was noted for his work with plant selection to improve production and develop new varieties.
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 that established land grant colleges and universities, the door was opened for more agricultural research that included plant improvement. In 1887, the Hatch Act made the first grants-in-aid of federal funds for agricultural research.
Much early plant research centered on improving varieties of wheat and corn, important food and feed crops. Improving seeds that carried the â traitsâ wanted in these crops was a slow process. It was, from the beginning, a form of genetic modification. The best plants in different fields would be saved, and then cross-pollinated with each other to hopefully develop a better variety. Most of the time, but not always, improvements were made.
Norman Borlaugh, the famous plant scientist who developed improved varieties of wheat and rice that saved millions of lives in the world, did his work through the slow process of plant selection. This was before the days of genetic modification through gene splicing.
Todayâ s modern crop seeds such as corn and soybeans are amazing. When the various genes in these crops were identified and could be selected, it was possible to develop varieties that were resistant to certain insects and plant diseases. Traits were added to seeds that improved production. Some local farmers say that genetically modified corn has improved production by as much as 40 to 50 bushels an acre in the last 20 years.
Right now much research is going into developing varieties of corn and soybeans that use less water and are drought resistant. The past summer illustrates the importance of this research and progress is being made.
So, that little seed is truly remarkable and we have been modifying and improving it for 150 to 200 years. Many local farmers are taking advantage of these improved seeds in their planting decisions for their farms.
Parker is retired from The Ohio State University and is an independent agricultural writer.