In Memoriam: Francis Childs

CropLife eNews just learned that Francis Childs — the first corn grower ever to top 400 bushels an acre — died Jan. 9.

According to a New York Times article, Francis Childs, a third-generation farmer who studied, schemed, and tramped his fields with a spade to become the most productive corn grower ever, died on Jan. 9 in Marshall County, IA. He was 68.

Childs shattered old notions of just how much corn could be coaxed from an acre of ground. He was the first farmer in a controlled contest to exceed 400 bushels an acre, achieving 405 in 2001 and 442 the next year.

Neighbors on land similar to his were getting yields just a third this size. In 1999, an Agriculture Department official watching the weigh-in of his 394 bushels likened the event to breaking the sound barrier, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) ruled eight times that Childs’s yield per acre had won his category of its hotly contested annual competitions. He won the Iowa contest 18 times and the Nebraska one twice. He displayed the awards with pride on the bug screen of his pickup.

In 2002, Childs told Iowa Farmer Today that he had recorded yields above 500 bushels an acre — the highest was 577 — in strips of less than the 10-acre crops required for contests. He envisioned getting more than 600 bushels from a single acre.

He plowed deeper than other farmers (many of whom no longer plow at all), planted genetically modified seeds very densely, used lots of chemical fertilizers and crop protection products, and tested the tissue of plants at different stages of growth. He often lectured on these techniques, and he was aggressive in his corn-crop methodology. “I like to push it,” he once said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. However, he planted at just 2 mph to avoid mistakes.

And his calculations were meticulous. Childs figured that a three-day stretch of 90-degree weather in 2002 had cost him precisely one and three-tenths of a bushel of corn per day.

Childs was born on Aug. 30, 1939, in Delaware County, IA. His father, Ross, entered crop-growing contests, and Francis followed suit when he took over the family farm in 1966. The next year, he won the Iowa corn contest. He did not win again for 20 years, attributing the dry spell to an unwillingness to innovate but not to his interest in competing in demolition derbies and tractor pulls. He operated a Polaris snowmobile shop for many years.

Environmentalists criticized Childs for his heavy use of fertilizer, saying it washed into the water supply. Others, including farmers who thought his achievements impossible and a former wife, accused him of cheating in contests. These charges seemed to gain credibility in 2003 when he was disqualified from the national contest. But NCGA officials attributed the problem to a procedural mistake by officials. He came back to win three national competitions, and five state ones.

Childs, who lived in Falls City, NE, and suffered a stroke last spring, is survived by his two sons, two daughters, and three grandchildren.

(Source: The New York Times)

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