By David Shields
Experts thought it extinct. The experts were wrong.
Cocke’s Prolific, one of America’s most important heirloom corn varieties, has been preserved by a 95-year-old farmer Manning Farmer of Landrum, SC.
A flinty white dent corn that grows stout ears measuring a foot and a half long, Cocke’s was the first commercially important prolific variety. Because prolific corn always set two or more ears per stalk (old landraces set one, maybe two), they insured productivity. Breeding and growing prolific corn became an obsession of American farmers in the second quarter of the 19th century.
The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has been instrumental in recovering this corn, putting it into the hands of Dr. James Holland of NC State for his comparative grow out of southern landrace maize, and distributing seed to growers in GA, KY, SC, and NC.
Cocke’s Prolific has been boarded onto The Slow Food Ark of Taste, a global register of the most historically resonant, flavorful, and endangered culinary ingredients and preparations in the world.
Maintained in Italy, the Ark of Taste calls attention to the world’s most precious edible resources and alerts farmers, chefs, and consumers to their food heritage. Cocke’s Prolific White Dent Corn was preserved for us by the efforts of one devoted grower. We are all in Manning Farmer’s debt.
Cocke’s Prolific was named for Gen. John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo Plantation, Va., one of Thomas Jefferson’s friends and agricultural associates. Sometime in the 1820s, Cocke improved a Native 12-14 row landrace maize variety to use as a field corn. Its meal quality was superlative, and roasted ears during the milk stage proved sumptuous. Livestock thrived on its fodder.
Widely adopted in Virginia during the mid-19th century, Cocke’s Prolific was called simply “Virginia Field Corn,” but seed companies from other states began introducing rival prolific strains — Comanche Corn, Dorrance Prolific, Champion Prolific, Wyandoot/Hick’s Prolific — so Virginians began calling it by the name of its creator in the 1870s.
When agricultural experiment stations began the comparative testing of corn varieties for productivity, disease resistance, and quality in the 1880s, the virtues of Cocke’s Prolific became widely documented. Seed was nationally available from the 1880s to the 1930s, and it won a broad following for its vitality, reliability in the field under a wide range of growing conditions, and quality as corn meal.
Manning Farmer’s uncle purchased the seed and began growing it on family property outside Landrum in the 1930s. Manning himself took over planting it in the wake of World War 2 and maintained the integrity of the seed rigorously for seven decades. Commercial availability of Cocke’s seed ceased during the War. By the 21st century it was functionally extinct.
Among American white dent corns only Hickory King (introduced by A. O. Lee of Hickory, Va., in 1880) rivals it in historic importance.
The loss of Cocke’s Prolific inspired an extensive search in the 2010s for surviving seed stocks. In 2017, as chair of the Ark of Taste Committee for the South, I distributed a list of the ten most wanted lost culinary plants of the region, including Cocke’s Prolific.
Angie Lavezzo of Sow True Seed Company in Ashville, NC, contacted me indicating that she had purchased a white dent by the name of Cox Prolific from Clarence Gibbs on Craigslist. Gibbs indicated the seed came from Manning Farmer’s fields in Landrum. Upon inspection, it proved to be the long lost Cocke’s white dent.
A lively cultivator and seed saver, Manning Farmer maintained his strain of Cocke’s Prolific because its qualities were precisely suited to his needs. He mills his own meal in a shed he built with his own hands with boards milled at his own sawmill. The shed also serves as a wheelwright work station — repairing wagon wheels is an avocation.
Announcement of the rediscovery of Cocke’s Prolific in November 2017 prompted great interest, and the seed has been distributed to several institutions and persons.
Because it was the only corn variety associated with Thomas Jefferson’s agricultural circle, it is being grown out at Monticello, and the revived crop will be on view at the Harvest Festival there on September 21-22. Cocke’s Prolific meal should be commercially available in autumn 2018.