What is Corn?

diagram of corn plantParts of a Corn Plant

Tassel: It is at the top part of the plant and it attracts bees and other insects.

Ear: Corn ears cover the silk, husk, kernels and cob of the corn plant.

Silk: The silk on the ear grows out of the top of the cornhusk and may be colored green, yellow or brown, depending on the corn variety.

Husk: It is the green leaves surrounding the corn ears. These protect the kernels of the corn.

Leaves: Like any plant, corn plants can have numerous leaves on the stalk.

Stalk: It is the main body of the plant, the stalk can grow several feet high and is quite sturdy to support the ears of the corn.

Roots: Holds the corn crop in place in the ground.

Types of Corn: Flint, Flour, Pop, Dent and Sweet


History of Corn

ancient ear of corn

This picture shows corn that is around 7000 years old, and about an inch long.

The history of modern day corn begins about 10,000 years ago. Ancient farmers took the first steps in growing corn when they chose which kernels to plant. Corn comes from a wild grass plant called teosinte, which is still growing in Mexico today. Native Americans brought corn up the Mississippi River. The earliest corn plant was very small, but after periods of breeding by Native Americans, pilgrims, and scientists, the corn plant has changed into the corn we know today. Native Americans found out that corn grew well in Iowa’s soil and could be worked easily with with bone hoes and wooden digging sticks. Modern Iowa farmers produce a bushel of corn with only six minutes of man-labor. Native Americans spent about twenty hours of man-labor on each bushel.

corn bread made at the 1850 farmIn the Pioneer days, women spent most of their time growing, preserving, and preparing food. Corn could be prepared in many different ways, such as Johnny cakes, hominy, corn bread, and cornmeal mush. Hand-picking corn was still the hardest job on the farm. It started in October and it might take the whole family several cold months to finish.

video iconVideo from History channel: History of Corn


Corn Today

ears of cornCorn has been the leading crop in Iowa for more than 150 years. Iowa produces more corn than the entire country of Mexico. On average, Iowa grows 183 bushels of corn per acre. Nationally the average is 173 bushels per acre (USDA). Tractors are becoming more technologically advanced and planting and harvesting corn is becoming easier over time.

Hybrid Corn:

Scientists discovered that allowing the pollen from one corn plant to pollinate itself created an inbred plant with special characteristics. This plant was called a hybrid, which had some unique traits, such as a higher yield or resistance to insect pests. Even though hybrid corn cost more to produce, farmers liked the improved yield, and hybrid corn became popular across the Corn Belt. In 1933, less than 1% of all corn raised in Iowa was hybrid corn. Just nine years later, in 1942, virtually 100% of all corn raised in Iowa was hybrid corn.

farmer watches as machinery pours corn kernels into a storage unit

Why is hybrid corn better?

Three acres of hybrid corn produces the same amount of corn as four acres of old-fashioned corn, so farmers could grow more corn on their land. Hybrid corn stands up well, so it is easier to harvest with a machine. The old-fashioned corn had stalks and roots that were weak, and they “blew down,” so it was hard for machine pickers to harvest the corn.


Interesting Facts about Corn

  • Corn grows on every continent except Antarctica
  • Corn is an ingredient in more than 4,000 everyday grocery items
  • A single bushel of corn can sweeten about 400 cans of soda
  • In an average year, Iowa produces more corn than most countries. If Iowa were a country, it would rank 4th in corn production.
  • Iowa livestock consumes 292 million bushels of corn
  • In 2012-2013, the USDA estimated 4.5 billion bushels of corn in the US would produce 14 billion gallons of ethanol


tassel on a corn plantHow many kernels of corn were planted per acre?

  • 1900 – 10,800 kernels
  • 1965 – 13,800 kernels
  • 2000 – 28,000 kernels


What was the average yield in bushels per acre?

  • 1900 – 25.9 bushels (United States), 45 bushels (Iowa)
  • 1965 – 77.4 bushels (United States), 82 bushels (Iowa)
  • 2000 – 137 bushels (United States), 144 bushels (Iowa)


corn growing in a field

How long did it take to plant, cultivate, and harvest one acre of corn?

  • 1900 – 38 hours
  • 1965 – 5.8 hours
  • 2000 – About 1 hour


video iconVideo from the History Channel: 3 things you didn’t know about corn

Visit the Iowa Corn website for more information and fun activities for kids!


Uses of Corn

illustration showing some of the uses of cornEdible: cake, cookies, dessert mixes, baby food, cereals, chewing gum, carbonated beverages, bread, chips, chocolate, soups, hot dogs, ice cream, jams, marshmallows, pet food, doughnuts, and many more!

Non-edible: Batteries, blankets, cardboard, chalk, cleaners/detergents, crayons, cosmetics, plates, cups, ink, insecticides, matches, paper, plastics, shampoo, shoe polish, and many more!


Corn: A plant that produces large grains, or kernels, set in rows on a cob. Its many varieties produce numerous products, highly valued for both human and livestock consumption.

Hybrid: The offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds varieties, species, or groups, especially as produced through human manipulation for specific genetic characteristics

Teosinte: Corn comes from this wild grass plant.

Yield: The amount of a certain crop that is produced on a farm.

Corn Belt: This is a region in the Midwest, especially Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois that is excellent in producing a large amount of corn.

Bushel: A unit of measurement usually equal to 35 liters or 9.5 gallons!

Dent Corn: This type of corn is used for animal feed, for making corn syrup, and for everything from fuel to biodegradable plastics.

Sweet Corn: It is picked when it is immature, and is enjoyed as a vegetable, rather than being left to dry and consumed as a grain.

Popcorn: Grains with a hard, moisture resistant shells surrounding dense pocket of starch and will pop when heated

Flint: It is distinguished by a hard outer shell and kernels with a range of colors from white to red.