Professional baseball season recently opened with all of its fanfare and everyone once again took to the parks to watch the cowhide meet the wooden bat.
Outspoken baseball manager Leo Durocher once said, “Baseball is like church. Many attend – few understand.”
Just as baseball has its opening days, so does agriculture. When warm days of spring arrive, farmers take to the fields hoping their season is just as successful as a team in the National or American League. And just like the quote from Durocher, you could say that agriculture is much the same. Many eat, but few understand how it happens.
In 2007, Tennessee had 79,500 farms and 11 million acres of farm and forestland. Today, that number has dropped to 77,300 farms and 10.8 million acres.
As the suburbs from surrounding municipal cities continue to make their way into the rural country sides of many Tennessee counties, our farmers find themselves feeding more citizens on less farmland.
One farmer today feeds 155 people each day, which is accomplished by modern agriculture. Over the years, there have been those farmers who have discovered new ways to farm and have even developed a better crop on their own farm to benefit us all.
Tennessee has had numerous famous agriculturalists who have farmed the land and often forged the very creation of commerce in our counties; men and women, who once worked the soil to make a living, raised a family and made their county a better place to live for everyone.
With corn planting now underway across the state, I think it would be good to remember one such farmer, which I have written often about. William Haskell Neal from Wilson County used the ordinary principles of planting good seed that his father had taught him as a boy.
“Plant only the best,” his father would say.
And that is what he did.
Neal was the originator of the famous seed corn “Neal’s Paymaster” that revolutionized seed corn production for years. He was a farmer and experimented with a revolutionary idea of breeding seed corn by selecting seed only from two-eared stalks.
The results of his experimentation resulted in increasing the corn yield of farmers amounting to millions of dollars. In 1919, it was estimated that “Neal’s Paymaster” corn added $2 million a year to the state of Tennessee’s economy. “Neal’s Paymaster” corn was an added income producer that was greatly needed in turn-of-the-century agriculture.
Neal got his idea for growing his new seed corn from reading an article in a farm paper about seed selection. Going over his fields, he found here and there a two-eared stalk, from which he carefully saved the bottom ear, as the article suggested.
After 10 years of experimenting, discarding inferior types and keeping only ears with the deepest grains, slimmest cobs, and best-filled tips, he was sure he had the variety he had been looking for.
To have his variety officially tested he contacted the University of Tennessee. They asked him to furnish them with seed for five years for their test.
He did so, but after only two years, the University’s experiment station sent back word that he had undoubtedly struck upon something unusual.
At the conclusion of the five-year test, he was told his variety would prove of great value to Tennessee farmers.
“Well, that is what the farmers want,” Neal said as reported in the 1920 edition of the Southern Agriculturist magazine. “We don’t care how crooked the row, or how twisted the cob, so long as there is plenty of grain. It is quantity and quality we are after, not looks.”
It became necessary to choose a name for the variety upon its success. The family talked it over, but it was Mrs. Neal who gave the seed corn its name.
As reported in the Southern Agriculturist, Wilson County was famous for its fine horses and jack stock. There was one of the neighbors who raised a particularly fine jack colt. Somebody from Missouri came through and bought him.
He was taken away, but after a while word got back that the Jones’ colt had developed into one of the finest animals ever seen in the part of Missouri to which he had been taken. Some men in the community made up a purse of $1,500 and brought him back to Wilson County, and for a long time he was the pride of the county. He was called Paymaster.
Mrs. Neal told her husband as they sat around the kitchen table, thinking of a name, “If this corn will pay its master as well as the Jones’ colt did, I don’t see where we could find a better name.”
So was the creation of the name “Neal’s Paymaster” seed corn.
It is hard to find his seed corn today, but its reputation is still well-known and is the foundation leading to much of the seed corn used in production supplying our markets. All because of the desire by one Wilson County farmer to produce a larger and more productive corn crop, we may have begun the process of growing more on less.
Pettus L. Read may be contacted by e-mail at