Many thousands of acres of Midwest corn won't make it to the bin this year because of the severe drought, but the 5,500 acres raised by Fred Kaltenberg, Sun Prairie, aren't among them.
Even though these acres are made up of the light (almost sandy) soils of Adams County, the corn growing on them is maybe eight feet tall, dark green in color and, if all goes well, will produce a bumper crop of seed corn.
Yes, seed corn - the hybrid seeds that farmers across the country and beyond will plant and grow next year.
The Kaltenberg name and seed corn have been together over a hundred years to 1906 when Anton J. Kaltenberg planted his first seed corn crop in the fertile soil of his farm just east of Waunakee in Dane County.
His son James continued the seed business which, in addition to corn, had grown to include soybeans, sorghum, sunflowers, grains and grasses.
Kaltenberg Seed Farms produced farm seed for farmers in Wisconsin and nine other states.
The Kaltenberg name continued into the third generation with grandsons Jack, as general manager and marketing manager, and Fred, as production manager.
Although not a major player in the seed corn business, Kaltenberg Seed Farms was a strong provider of seed to many hundreds of corn and grain growers in the Midwest.
In addition to growing seed corn for their own use, Fred Kaltenberg was growing corn for an number of other seed corn companies - not an unusual business for seed companies to be involved in.
Both Jack and Fred Kaltenberg were long gone from Kaltenberg Seed Farms by the time the company died after several years of family difficulties and the equipment was sold at auction in late March 2010. This marked the end of 104 years of farm seed production.
By then, both Jack and Fred Kaltenberg had started their own companies - of course, in the seed corn business.
Jack Kaltenberg formed "Partners in Production," and continues to sell seed corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and tillage radish seeds (pipseeds.com).
His son, Anton, and daughter, Gena Marshall, are employed at the Arlington-based company.
Fred Kaltenberg started Diversified Seed Producers Company in late 2006 with the goal of producing quality custom seeds for seed corn marketers.
"it was time to move on," he says. "I had been growing for other companies for some time while still at Kaltenberg Seeds. This meant I had a base of customers to start with."
Today, Diversified Seed Producers raises hybrid corn for 18 companies located from the Dakotas to New York and in Canada, on some 5,500 acres of land in Adams County. He owns 1,300 acres and rents or contracts with corn farmers for the rest.
"it's all irrigated land," Kaltenberg says. "This year the water has been on around the clock since late June and the corn looks great."
He was not yet sure about the pollination rate last week when I visited.
"It's too early to tell," he says while looking at several newly formed ears. "I'll know in a week or so; hot weather during the crucial pollination period is not good."
Kaltenberg has a dozen full-time employees with another 10 seasonal workers. This does not include the contracted crew of some 250 workers brought in to detassel the "rogue" plants in the male corn rows. (Rogue - non conforming - plants are prevented from pollinating the female rows that produce the hybrid.)
Many people traveling on rural roads wonder about the strange cornfields they see - four rows of short stalks, one row of tall corn with tassels.
Those are hybrid corn fields where the tassels have been removed mechanically so that these plants won't self pollinate.
The tall rows with tassels (the male rows) will pollinate the detasseled rows and produce the hybrid ears of corn which are harvested, dried and sold for next year's planting.
Many readers will remember the days. some 30 or so years ago, when every seed corn grower hired teenagers to detassel corn. This was a hot, dirty job that required the detasselers to pull out the tassels by hand. Kaltenberg says that those young people who lasted the season learned so much about discipline, hard work and earning money.
After the ears are formed and nearing maturity, the corn is carefully combined, cleaned and packed in bags or specialized containers and stored for the next spring's planting.
Fred Kaltenberg has agreements with a number of seed corn growers to use their equipment to process his seed for market. His sons, Mathew and Michael, both graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, also work with Diversified Seed Producers.
of hybrid corn
Corn growing goes back thousands of years and, along with rice, are the two most important grains grown. Even in the earliest days of corn growing, the best corn ears - the biggest, juiciest, hardiest - were kept for seed the following year.
This continued until the mid-1930s when hybrid corn became practical.
Hybrid corn is the result of crossing two pure lines of corn by removing the tassels from one, which is pollinated by the other, thus forming another - the hybrid. Not only do you get a new variety, but one that is better yielding and more vigorous - hybrid vigor.
Since the 1960s, single cross varieties have dominated corn breeding as the inbred lines became better.
The creation of hybrid seeds was one of the most important discoveries in the history of farming, and by the mid 1940s had replaced most of the open pollinated varieties raised for so many years.
Pioneer Hi-Breds, in 1926, was the first commercial company to seriously market hybrid corn. During the depression and drought of the 1930s, it and a host of other corn companies saw their market grow as farmers saw the value of hybrids.
The development of hybrid corn also meant that farmers had to buy new seed each year. No more could they use seed from their previous crop, as hybrid corn does not effectively reproduce.
Hybrids also allowed a cost effective protection of intellectual property in corn breeding. This gave rise to a viable plant breeding industry and at one time hundreds of seed corn companies competed for the farmer's business.
In recent years biotechnology has entered the corn growing picture with the splicing of genes into plants to aid in weed and insect resistance.
This has been the subject of much discussion and controversy among some corn growers and the general public and, although most of the corn grown in the U.S. is biotechnically modified, some countries have not okayed its use.
Today several large corn companies with extensive research capabilities have developed traits for many situations (insects, weeds, drought) that are factors in corn growing. They have made these available through licensing to even the smallest corn company, which then can offer the latest genetics to farmers.
Breeding and growing corn is a complicated business, but in simple terms, Fred Kaltenberg and many other corn growers like him across the nation, grow the seed to grow the crop to make corn based foods and feed the livestock that feed the people.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.