MANCHESTER, Iowa -- For most of his 60 years, Francis Childs tended a farm here in obscurity. But this winter, his fellow farmers are lining up to hear him speak, academics are studying his ways, and a seed company is putting him in its advertisements.
In an industry that rarely has any stars, "he is a legend," says Joe Welsh, an Iowa farmer attending a recent Childs lecture.
What Mr. Childs has done is raise people's notions of just how much corn can be coaxed from an acre of ground. The average farmer in Iowa grows around 150 bushels an acre, and although many do a little better, many scientists have long felt that the theoretical maximum, under ideal conditions, would be 400 bushels.
No farmer ever came close to that until last October, when a small crowd gathered here to watch Mr. Childs harvest an acre that was so thick with vegetation that his combine had to move at a crawl. Then came the weigh-in at the grain elevator, and the posting of the number: 394 bushels, smashing a 14-year-old record. "It was exciting, like watching Mach I almost being broken," says an Agriculture Department official who was present.
This October, Mr. Childs vows to shatter the 400-bushel barrier, and few are betting against him. Mr. Welsh, who has a small, 110-acre corn farm about 60 miles to the north, says that Mr. Childs "shows there is hope for the small guy."
If so, it is a strange sort of hope.
The promise is for higher output. Mr. Childs's modest-sized 320-acre farm grows more corn than the average Midwestern farm twice its size. With profit margins on corn and everything else that Midwestern farmers produce now razor-thin, getting higher yields and thus having more to sell is a goal to which every farmer aspires.
There is just one hitch in this. Heavy production is the very reason those profit margins are so thin. The world is awash in corn, thanks partly to advanced agricultural methods pioneered by innovative U.S. agriculture and since adopted abroad. If every farmer learned to produce like Francis Childs, one can only imagine what would happen to today's already deeply depressed corn prices.
Then there is the matter of how the corn-growing champion gets those yields. Some of his techniques are proprietary -- he says that "it would take six years for anyone to learn my methods." But others he explains in public lectures, and they aren't things likely to enhance the romantic notions that some citified supporters of the small farmer have.
For one thing, he plows deep into the soil, easing the way for roots to grow. But this also leaves the topsoil more vulnerable to erosion by wind and water, which is part of the reason most Midwest farmers no longer use traditional plows at all.
His strategy also involves heavy usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that boost growth, but that critics say can escape into groundwater. And, like many corn farmers, he uses seed that is genetically modified to resist insects. This has one environmental plus -- less need for chemical pesticides -- but in the minds of some environmentalists it also carries a risk of unintended consequences, such as the spread of a gene-induced trait to other plants.
"He's like an athlete on steroids," says Dave Lubben of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a group dedicated to minimizing plowing as well as use of fertilizer and pesticides.
For these reasons, "Francis Childs isn't a good role model," contends Dennis R. Keeney, senior fellow at the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology in Ames, Iowa. Recurring gluts of corn mean that all farmers ought to be concerned less about boosting production and more about cutting costs and diversifying into other crops, says Dr. Keeney.
But farmers don't think collectively. And in the short term, one way for a single corn grower to compensate for lower crop prices is to produce more -- a cruel irony of the commodities market.
And so, the Childs effect is already evident at farms across the Corn Belt. After phoning Mr. Childs from his farm in Indiana, two states east, Robert Little this year has big plans for boosting production, including use of the same type of deep-cutting plow that Mr. Childs employs. "What Francis has done is truly amazing," says Mr. Little.
Indeed. Every season since 1997, Mr. Childs has produced more corn from a single acre than anyone else who farms nonirrigated land, giving him three consecutive "dry land" victories in the National Corn Growers Association contest. For the past two years, he even beat the top tiller of irrigated land, which often does better because it has a steady moisture supply. Agronomist Norm Larson of Case IH, a farm-implement maker, is in awe: "To me, he is like Neil Armstrong," Mr. Larson says.
Mr. Childs's string of championships, touted on the bug screen of his pickup, has won him tens of thousands of dollars in corporate prize money and gifts. He also gets free equipment. After he praised a particular plow in a trade-magazine article, its sales jumped. Now, "we make sure he gets whatever he needs from us for free," says Mike Lickteig, co-president of the plow's maker, Wiese Corp. in Perry, Iowa.
Instead of any financial incentive, though, what seems to drive Mr. Childs is the challenge. "I like corn," he says. "I like to push it." Most Midwestern farmers rotate their crops, usually alternating between corn and soybeans, a practice that is good for the soil and helps keep weeds and insects from getting out of hand. Mr. Childs plants only corn.
At 320 acres, his northeast Iowa farm sits among operations three and four times its size. A recent visit finds Mr. Childs willing to talk about corn and little else. Personal questions start him gazing at the horizon. A shy man, he seems more comfortable around plants than people.
He is the third generation of his family to grow corn on this farm. As a young man he competed in demolition derbies and tractor pulls. Only later in life did he take up "corn racing," as the yield contests are called.
The contests began as an educational exercise in the 1930s, when university plant breeders were trying to get farmers to give up home-grown seed for hybrids. The secret weapons of the early competitors included buffalo-manure fertilizer and planting by the phases of the moon. Now they use fancy hybrids that have turned corn into a racehorse of the plant world, able to grow three inches on a humid June day and yield ever-more bushels of grain.
But as agribusiness tries to make hay out of the corn competition, "there's a big debate about whether the contest is just becoming an advertising vehicle for companies," says Jeff Meis, an official of one contest sponsor, the Iowa Crop Improvement Association.
Mr.Childs won a state contest in his second year of trying, 1967. For the next two decades he refined his formula. It jelled for him in the 1990s, when he won his class in the Iowa contest eight times and in the national contest the past three years. Because winning depends a lot on weather, and rainfall can vary from farm to farm, three straight wins is an astonishing feat.
And it isn't just the streak but his margin of victory. His haul in October beat the second-place farmer in his class by 142 bushels, or 56%. It topped the old, 1985 record by 7%.
This maestro of maize sprouted at a time when seed companies, their market flat, were trying to steal one another's customers. Delighted to hear that Mr. Childs used its seed, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. (now owned by DuPont Co.) lavished gifts on him, including a jacket bearing the seed variety he won with last year: 34G82. Pioneer also features him in its ads.
Meanwhile, the seed unit of Switzerland's Novartis AG recently was offering $100,000 to any farmer who won with its seed, until contest officials, concerned that such prize money might encourage cheating, capped it at $10,000.
But for some financially stressed small farmers who look up to Mr. Childs, the hoped-for prize is simply survival. Could his techniques help them? To find out, farm groups from across the Midwest are inviting him to speak. He lectures about once a week during winter, for $200 a shot plus mileage on his pickup.
At a lecture on a snowy night in the Iowa town of Waukon, all 132 seats in the Vets' Club are filled. Before he speaks, several farmers walk up to have their picture taken with Mr. Childs. Then he takes the floor.
Know Your Planter Unlike his cornfields, his speeches don't win any prizes. He tells no jokes and doesn't warm up his audience. He turns on a slide projector. In a monotone he recites 16 tips for high-yield corn. Among them: Don't be afraid to use lots of seed. Plant slowly. Pay attention to seed-to-soil contact. Try to avoid compacting the soil. (One tip for that: Spread the tractor's weight around by lowering the pressure in its tires.)
He has lots to say, too, about potash levels and row widths. And "have a positive attitude," Mr. Childs says. "Get to know your planter." Some farmers take notes, and a few lean so far forward to hear that they are in danger of toppling.
Mr. Childs speaks for 40 minutes and takes questions for 30. He says he plants 44,000 corn kernels an acre, which is about 50% more than average. He plows 14 inches down, about six inches deeper than other farmers -- those who still plow at all. He uses at least 400 pounds of fertilizer an acre, twice what most use.
Mr. Childs gives this special treatment to only about a third of his acres, intending just before harvest time to select the very best for the contest. In these days of highly mechanized farming, he is in some ways like a farmer of old: He spends hours in his fields on foot. Carrying a spade, he probes roots and checks carefully to see what sort of insect problems he has. And if a stalk is sprouting extra tiny ears of corn, he plucks them off so they don't draw plant energy away from the main ear.
This intensive care is something farmers with a thousand or more acres couldn't possibly give, Mr. Childs notes: "They're so big, they can't spend the attention they need to get high yield."
Many farm audiences are too polite to ask their most burning question: Does he make a profit? In private, some do ask. He concedes that his costs for fertilizer, pesticides, seed, fuel and such run as high as $650 an acre, twice the statewide average. But his yields are so good that he says he earns as much profit per bushel as his larger neighbors. He says his break-even point is $1.68 a bushel. Most farmers here will get about $2.50 a bushel for last year's crop, counting government subsidies.
Mr. Childs doesn't give away all of his secrets. Devotees often speculate about what they are. One theory: He angles his rows such as to maximize sun exposure. Told of this theory, Mr. Childs chuckles.
Another theory is that he cheats. Did Mr. Childs really get 394 bushels off a single acre? "I'm somewhat skeptical. A lot of people here are," says Robert Beswick, who finished a very distant second behind Mr. Childs in the same Iowa county, Delaware. "What he does is hard to understand."
Mr. Childs dismisses such coffee-shop talk as sour grapes and notes that the contest is policed. Two "verifiers" from the corn-grower association show up at the harvest to make sure the combine is covering a true acre. They also look for evidence of secret watering, which would violate contest rules in the dry-land class.
"People always think Francis cheats, so I'm tougher on him," says one verifier, Julie McCready. "If he's cheating, he's ingenious."
Without verifiers, no result is official. So the claim Mr. Childs makes one recent afternoon is irrelevant, except to explain why he is so confident he can break the 400-bushel barrier. Gazing out at snow-covered fields, he says he took 453 bushels from one acre last year, but no officials were there to see it.
*Write to Scott Kilman at email@example.com
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Last Updated on 3/8/00
By Rachel C. Benbrook