‘Cocke’s Prolific’: Corn with a Comeback Story

Journey to a remote farm with a group of seed savers as they rediscover and help revive a corn cultivar once thought lost.

Photo by Chris Smith.

We drove the back roads from Asheville, North Carolina, to the Dark Corner of South Carolina. This was old bootlegger and moonshine country, where sorghum molasses was made with forgotten knowledge and seeds were buried deep in freezers like hidden treasure. Angie Lavezzo, general manager of Sow True Seed, drove while I took in the old barns painted red and set to crumble, the poplar and pine trees, and the farmhouses and winding roads. We were on our way to meet local contact Clarence Gibbs, who had sold Lavezzo a couple of pounds of ‘Cox’s Prolific’ corn seed on Craigslist. While we both care deeply about seed, it’s not our standard practice to drive around the Southeast hand-collecting our purchases. This was a special occasion for a very special seed — or so we hoped.

In 2017, David Shields, Ph.D., food scholar and flavor saver, had distributed a list of his top ten most wanted lost culinary plants of the South. A corn cultivar long thought extinct made that list under the name ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’ As an avid fan of Shield’s work, and a long-time steward of seeds, Lavezzo connected her purchase of ‘Cox’s Prolific’ with ‘Cocke’s Prolific,’ and so the adventure of rediscovery began. Shields quickly acknowledged the high likelihood of ‘Cox’s’ and ‘Cocke’s’ being the same corn, and Gibbs happily agreed to take us to the farmer, a friend of his, who had grown it. That’s how Lavezzo, Shields, and I found ourselves arriving at Manning Farmer’s home the week before Thanksgiving of 2017.

A Prolific History

Shields has authored many books, including Southern Provisions, which explores the creation and revival of Southern cuisine. His depth of research from archived magazines, newspapers, and seed catalogs is astounding, and he weaves it all together to tell the fascinating history of people and food. In the communications leading up to our visit, Shields shared some of the history of ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’

In the early 1800s, General John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo Plantation, Virginia, worked to improve a landrace corn cultivar to use as a field corn. He created a flinty white dent corn with stout, 18-inch ears, named prolific because each stalk produced at least two of these long ears. Cocke was a friend and agricultural associate of Thomas Jefferson, and the corn quickly became adopted throughout Virginia as an excellent meal corn, where it was known simply as ‘Virginia Field Corn.’ As other prolific corn cultivars were introduced to the market, ‘Virginia Field Corn’ began to assume the name of its creator, and, by the 1870s, it was commonly known as ‘Cocke’s Prolific.’ By the 1890s, the corn had won a reputation for its quality, productivity, and performance, and the seed was nationally available until the 1930s. During World War II, commercial availability of the seed ceased, and, by the turn of the 21st century, it was considered extinct. Shields began actively searching for the corn in 2013, but Lavezzo’s Craigslist lead was the closest he’d ever come to finding it.

Photo by Vanessa Chardos.



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