Pasquotank County farmer Michael Gray vividly remembers the first time he thought about planting his corn crop in narrower rows and at higher densities.

It was during a farm tour in a nearby county, where North Carolina State University Crop Science Specialist Ron Heiniger had established a row width and plant population test.

“Dr. Heiniger had three different ears of corn,” recalls Gray, who farms 1,700 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and cabbage outside of Elizabeth City with his father, Charles, and brother, Scott.

“He had one ear of corn that was 6- or 7-inches long. He held up another one that was 5.5-inches long. And the other was probably 4. He said, ‘How many farmers want ears of corn like this?’ and held up a 7-inch ear of corn. Of course, everybody always thought the bigger, the longer, the better — more kernels on the cob. He said that was a pretty good choice: I forget exactly, but it was like 190 bushels per acre.

“And then he said, ‘How many of you want this?’ and held up a 4-inch ear. And nobody wanted the little teeny nubbin,” Gray says. “But he said this would’ve been 238 or 240 bushels per acre — the difference being in the number of plants per acre.