Friday, June 12, 2009

Planting Corn: Then as a Homesteader, Now as a 21st Century Farmer

By Jarred Thimm
Southeast Community College

The year was 1862 and the words “Free Land, Free Land” echoed from east to west and “the Homestead Act of 1862 opened millions of acres across the nation to settlement and cultivation” according to the pamphlet “Homestead” from the Homestead National Monument of America.

The Homestead National Monument is just a few miles west of Beatrice off Highway 4 and it is something most of us around here take for granted. I have walked the paths of the Homestead National Monument and stood up on the hill looking over the land settled by Daniel Freeman. But, it wasn’t until I planted fields of corn myself that I could really imagine the challenges he faced taming the land with its dense grass cover. I will compare planting corn as the early homesteaders did with corn planting today and challenges of both. I will describe the equipment used to prepare the soil for planting, planting itself as well as the challenges of producing corn then and now.

Corn was one of the crops that early homesteaders brought with them according to Nicoll’s 1967 book, Nebraska a Pictorial History. The first step in planting corn is to prepare the soil for planting. Try to imagine yourself cutting through a thick mat of dense grass with an underground root system that is anchored deep in the soil. According to an undated pamphlet printed by Homestead National Monument of America, “tough steel plows were needed to cut through the deep tangled roots of prairie sod” and as stated in Homesteading in the 19th Century and it was pulled by a strong team of oxen, guided by the farmer. The plow would take a 9 inch swath and the farmer would have to walk 10 miles to plow an acre of land according to the 2008 video demonstration Plowing and Planting from the Homestead National Monument of America website. An acre, according to my calculations, is 43,560 square feet about the size of a football field.

Today, most farmers I am familiar with practice no-till which means the soil is not disturbed before planting. I know from my personal experience that no-till farming benefits the soil because it leaves residue on the soil surface and prevents erosion. Most farmers today I am familiar with spray herbicides, which are chemicals, to control weeds.

There is a big difference in how the soil was prepared by the homesteaders which involved grueling hours and days spent behind a plow to carefully calculating chemical rates to control weeds today. There is also a big difference in how corn is planted.

Corn and corn planting equipment have changed greatly over the years. Today’s ear of corn is much different from the corn produced by the homesteader. Homesteaders saved corn from one year’s harvest for the next year’s seed and was planted with a “hand operated mechanism
that dropped the seed into the furrow” as demonstrated on the 2008 planting video from the Homestead Monument website.

Today, farmers do not plant corn from last year’s crop. Instead I have the choice to plant conventional seed, seed that has not been genetically modified, or seed which has been modified to resist certain insects or herbicides. Farmers, such as myself, also use larger equipment to increase efficiency.

In our area, most corn is planted with 8 to 24 row planters. I plant with a 12 row planter pulled by a 100 horsepower tractor. I have a monitor in the cab that will alert me if one of the rows is not dropping seeds at the rate I have set. The planter precisely places the seed at a depth I have selected. I can plant approximately 10 acres an hour.

Advancements in corn planting have been made in the last 150 years. One thing that both, homesteaders of the past and farmers of today, have in common is the challenge of working with nature.

Producing corn has been a challenge and continues to be a challenge often because of things outside of farmers’ control. Weather…too much rain…too little rain. The price a farmer receives for the crop doesn’t always cover the cost of production. Weather and other natural disasters were factors for early homesteaders. Homesteaders contended with dust storms, hail storms” and the list goes on as described in Homestead National Monument of America 2000 publication by Houk. Farmers today are not only affected by natural disasters but are also influenced by global conditions. Last summer I noticed drop in corn prices which was a direct result of decrease in oil prices which brought down the demand for corn in ethanol plants.

Comparing the practice of corn planting by homesteaders of the 19th century and farmers of the 21st century has been an interesting journey. Farmers have made advancements to make production more efficient but still face many challenges.

I compared corn planting “Then” as a homesteader and “Now” a as 21st century farmer including some challenges. I described how the soil is prepared before planting, the planting process and finally a few challenges homesteaders and farmers face. Next time you see a planter in the field, stop and remember the first tillers of the soil, the homesteaders. To learn more about them and to appreciate their legacy, visit the Homestead National Monument.


Homestead. (n.d.). Homestead National Monument of America. National Park Service.

Homesteading in the 19th Century. (n.d.). Homestead National Monument of America. National Park Service.

Houk, R. (2000). Homestead National Monument of America. Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National.

Nicoll, B. (Eds). (1967). Nebraska a pictorial history. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Plowing and planting. (Last updated 2008, November 28). Video demonstration. Homestead National Monument of America. Retrieved April 28,2009, from

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