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Knee High By The 4th Of July

The 4th of July has been noted in many ways over the decades, but for long-ago corn farmers, the holiday likely foretold what their harvest would be like in the fall.

I’m betting when you see a cornfield this week, seven timeless words will go through your head: “Knee high by the 4th of July”. When and where did that phrase come from?

Wayne Humphreys is the president of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. His guess is probably as good as anybody’s, but he says it likely started around the turn of the 20th century, when corn plants were open-pollinated.

"I wonder if maybe the 4th of July being relatively near to the summer solstice, which is usually the last couple weeks of June, might be sort of looked upon as the mid-point of the growing season, and those open-pollinated hybrids wouldn’t have become more than 4-5 feet tall at maturity. So, if they were knee high by the 4th of July, they’d be half grown at the half-way point of the season," he says. "That is pure speculation on my part!"

Now, if today’s crop is only knee high on the nation’s birthday, growers will be in a panic.

"Our hybrids and our seed treatments, and our genetics are so much improved over the last 100 years," says Humphreys. "We plant much earlier, the seeds emerge much quicker, and they are by the 4th of July more like head-high. Here in Iowa, at least."

If you need an adage to describe the way corn grows now, a song from the musical “Oklahoma” might be a better description. “Corn as high as an elephant’s eye”.

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