Now it is Found: the Story of Cocke's Prolific Corn

By Zoe Nicholson & David Shields 

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“We’ve been growin’ it here since the 1930s — my uncle & my father. . . I’ve been growin’ it since after World War 2,” Manning Farmer, a 95-year-old farmer from Landrum, South Carolina, says as he motions to the mounds of corn he’s been growing for over 75 years. The corn was Cocke’s Prolific, and to Dr. Shields’ knowledge, Farmer’s supply was the only available supply “on the planet.”

One part of the “trinity of classic Virginia field corns” — along with the Bloody butcher and White Gourdseed — Cocke’s Prolific was a signature field corn and popular to the Virginian diet for over a century. Credited to Gen. John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo Plantation in central Virginia, the corn earned its second qualifier from the amount of cobs each stalk is able to produce: two to four, at the very least.

Why did it prove so popular? For starters, the average corn variety in Virginia at the time of Cocke’s Prolific creation was only able to produce one to two stalks, while Cocke’s Prolific usually produces two stalks and a nubbin, and sometimes up to four full stalks. In the Antebellum South, prolific corn was the favored grain for this very reason, where farmers, especially those associated with the Old Dominion and the economic elite [1] , were always searching for the next big cash crop. It is surmised that the corn originally gained notice through such circles as these because of Gen. Cocke’s involvement in the Albemarle Agricultural Society.

A dent corn, and a flinty one at that, Cocke’s prolific was the preferred corn variety for livestock silage and cornbread meal. Also known as Virginia Ensilage, the corn never became a staple of the spirit’s industry; Gen. Cocke was an avid supporter of the temperance movement and discouraged the use of his productive grain in whiskey and bourbon.

The Prolific corn was sought after because it allowed two stalks when densely planted, but up to seven if the planter spaced them out or extensively tilled. A single grain can produce many stalks and ears of corn, proving it to be cost-efficient and space-saving. Cocke’s Prolific is a 120 day corn and typically yields 55 to 105 bushels per acre. Although the cobs are small, the number of them per stalk makes up for their less than average size. Initially, the stalks were smaller than average and relatively weak, but expert seed selection throughout the 19th Century improved this defect.

   Buchanan’s Seeds   , Memphis Tennessee 1917, p. 50.

Buchanan’s Seeds, Memphis Tennessee 1917, p. 50.

Its popularity increased into the 1880s and beyond, where it outlasted and outsold the other prolific breeds, including Hick’s Prolific from New York and Peabody’s Prolific from Mississippi. Cocke’s Prolific was the longest-lasting of all the Prolific varieties of the Southeast, but almost completely disappeared from the market after the Second World War.

For the past three years Dr. Shields has been looking for this grain. Thanks to Angie Lavezzo of Sow True Seed in Asheville, NC, Dr. Shields was connected with Manning Farmer and his son, Darrell. Lavezzo came across the seed for “Cox’s Prolific” on Craigslist, which is synonymous to Cocke’s Prolific. The seller of the seed, Clarence Gibbs, is a close friend of Farmer, and put Dr. Shields and Lavezzo in touch with the growers, which culminated in a visit to their farm earlier this year along with Gibbs and Chris Smith of Sow True Seed.

“See those piles there, along the curve of the road. That’s the corn,” Manning Farmer said with a knowing smile. Beyond his Scuppernong bower, 16 mounds of stalks and husks waited to be utilized by Farmer and his son. The Farmers began growing Cocke’s Prolific in the 1930s, and take great care with seed selection and spacing. Spaced out at eight to ten inches, Farmer rotates the corn with Knuckle peas. He allows the cobs to dry out on their stalks, making them optimal for plucking and shucking.           

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At the beginning of the visit with Manning and Darnell, Cocke’s Prolific was only grown on their farms in the Upstate, but since, the once popular corn is being reintroduced to growers and researchers. Robert McDonald of Dancing Stars Farms Seeds in Pennsylvania, Dr. James Holland of NC State University, and Dr. Bob Perry at the University of Kentucky all possess the variety and are growing it out. Currently, it is also being grown at Monticello, homestead of Thomas Jefferson.

“Now it is found,” Dr. Shields writes of the heritage grain that was so vital to the Virginian agricultural landscape for over a hundred years. Cocke’s Prolific is one of many lost grains and vegetables The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is hoping to recover, along with the Palmetto Asparagus and the Crawford Turnip. Fortunately it has been found—white kernels glinting in the winter sun, on a small farm in the Blue Ridge foothills.