Spring is here and that means pretty soon farmers across the nation will be pulling equipment out of the shed and into the field. Farmers across the nation will be dumping bag after bag of corn seed into their planter without thinking twice about what it took to get that seed to the planter.
The life cycle of the corn we grow here on the farm begins long before it meets the ground on our farm. And that was a perspective I rarely thought about. So what is the life cycle of the corn seed and how does it end up on our farm for us to plant?
It doesn’t matter what type of corn seed you are buying on the farm, almost all seeds are developed in much of the same way. It just so happens that my husband and I got the wonderful opportunity to tour through Monsanto Hawaii while we were enjoying our vacation on Oahu. Of course, no vacation is complete without something farm-related!
Mark Wood, Monsanto Program Lead at Monsanto Hawaii, was kind enough to give us a tour on a Saturday. And we ended up asking so many questions, our tour lasted nearly 4 hours! It was amazing to know that some of the corn we plant on our farm may have been grown in Hawaii at one point in time!
Contrary to the public perception of what happens at Monsanto Hawaii, it is not ground zero for developing new varieties of crops. All research on these crops begins at headquarters on the mainland. These new crops offer enhanced qualities to farmers such as drought tolerance and improved resistance to disease and pests.
Monsanto is one of five seed companies operating in Hawaii and for good reason. Once a new trait or technology is developed in a seed, it can take 10 to 12 years before the product can hit the market. By comparison, non-biotech or conventional products can be brought to market in about two-thirds the time.
Having farms in Hawaii helps speed up the process. Monsanto can grow three to four sets of crops in one year’s time compared to one at farms on the mainland. This greatly reduces the time needed to get new seeds to both domestic and worldwide markets.
Although the farm on Oahu takes up 2,000 acres, only about one-quarter of it can be farmed at a time due to water limitations, buildings, conservation ditches, gullies, roads and other terrain not suitable for farming. The land the farm sits on was originally pineapple fields. In fact, you can still see some of the black plastic used from the pineapple farming in the soil today.
Because the land when it was first purchased was not suitable for growing corn, Monsanto Hawaii had to put down lime to raise the pH of the soil as well as charcoal was used to balance the levels of the herbicide formerly used during the pineapple production.
In addition they had to put conservation plans in place in order to allow for farming. They have worked together with their local NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) to put plans in place for erosion control utilizing cover crops as well as berms to keep water from running down hills and into watersheds.
Much to my surprise, there are no white coats or lab scientists at Monsanto Hawaii. It is essentially just a farm. But instead of farming by the acre, every 10 feet there is something different: a different variety of crop being put to the test in the field.
Once a new seed comes onto the island, it is tracked from start to finish. The advent of bar code technology has allowed this to be possible and has made the job of growing these crops much more efficient. At the end of its growing cycle, seeds are also checked (through a method called chipping) to ensure that the seed contains the trait it is supposed to.
At Monsanto Hawaii, they are growing and breeding. And all of this is done by hand, with the exception of planting. They estimate that about 5 million hand pollinations occur every year on the Oahu farm. Most of what is grown by Monsanto Hawaii is corn, with some soybeans and wheat mixed in.
Wood’s history starts in Oklahoma, where the dirt is just as red as it is in Hawaii. It is through his roots in Oklahoma agriculture, he has developed a passion for conservation tillage and helping farmers utilize sustainable production and his job at Monsanto Hawaii does just that.
Wood gets to see the results of the lab work done on the mainland from start to finish in the field. And most importantly, he gets to witness how traits, like drought tolerance in corn, will benefit farmers across the globe.
Monsanto Hawaii was not at all high-tech like I expected it to be, it was very much the opposite, going back to the basics of farming. During our time at Monsanto Hawaii, I was simply amazed at how much time and energy goes into those boxes and bags of seeds we purchase to plant in our fields every single year.
I encourage you if you’re in Oahu to take a tour. Monsanto Hawaii encourages people to visit their facility so that they can get a firsthand look at the life cycle of seeds long before they reach our farm and have the opportunity to ask questions.
Monsanto may get a bad rap in the eyes of many, but one thing is for sure, they are completely open to having a conversation. As Wood summed up to us: “There are many urban myths about the company I work for, and I encourage folks to please take the time to learn who we really are and what we do, so they can separate fact from fiction.”