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Robinson, Joe L.

Published onOct 14, 2021
Robinson, Joe L.

(July 10, 1893 - January 9, 1990)

Quick Facts

Joe Robinson brought together various corn, grain, soybean and other seed producing organization to form the umbrella organization, Iowa Corp Improvement Association and spearheaded the Iowa Corn Yield Tests.

Joseph Lee Robinson was born on July 10, 1893, to John and Mary (Becker) Robinson in Omega, Oklahoma. He received his BS (1916) from Oklahoma A&M College (Oklahoma State University), and his MS (1918) and PhD (1933) in plant physiology and crop production from Iowa State College (University). Prior to coming to Iowa State, Robinson was an Assistant Professor (1917-1920) of agronomy at the University of Wyoming. He also served in the United States military (1918) during World War I, achieving the rank of Second Lieutenant.

Robinson was hired by Iowa State as Superintendent (1920-1932) of cooperative experiments. He was promoted to Assistant Professor (1932-1938) of farm crops, Associate Research Professor (1938-1946) of agronomy, and Research Professor and Extension Professor (1946-1959) in agronomy.

Robinson is often referred to as “Mr. Certified Seed of Iowa,” a term that reflects accurately the role he played in making sure farmers had access to truly good seeds for their crops over a period of nearly 40 years Robinson not only helped develop the highly-respected Iowa Corn Yield Contest but played a major role in the basic integrity of this program. The test has been invaluable in providing grain yield information to assist farmers in selecting crop varieties that promise better returns.

His credit for starting the Iowa State Yield Test is shared with two prominent agricultural figures, Iowa State College farm corps professor HD Hughes and Henry A. Wallace. Initiated in 1920, this comparison of corn seed varieties was the first in the nation and eventually added millions of dollars to the annual Iowa farm income.

The yield contest grew out of concern that wide differences existed in both quality and yields even though a basic kind of seed had been planted. For example, 50 growers of Reids’ Yellow Dent corn provided seed to the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station with yields varying from 50 to 75 bushels per acre. In addition, a 26 bushel yield disparity was found with a dozen strains of Silver King. In Floyd County tests, 1918 yields ranged from 21.6 to only 15.5. bushels per acre; in Henry County, the yield range was 17.5 between corn varieties and strains.

Such experiences created concern among corn growers and others. Out of this environment came the idea on an impartial yield test to help corn farmers identify superior seeds and obtain the best current information about performance of corn varieties an/or yields. The first year for testing, with a $10 entry fee, was 1920 with 128 entries. Five replications of each entry were required, with four kernels planted per hill. Plots were 25 hills four rows wide.

This basic testing program continued into the 90s, with results announced at the annual Iowa Crop Improvement Day program at Iowa State University. In addition to the state yield comparisons, individual grower-winners in the prestigious Iowa Masters yield contests are officially announced that day, with individual champions honored for both corn and soybeans. Entries run into the thousands in each contest. The Iowa Yield Test became a model for similar programs in other Corn Belt states.

The state program of seed certification gives assurance to producers that they have a high quality see and that improved varieties are true to their name. Furthermore, the corn yield program provides unbiased, accurate, and detailed information to farmers pertaining to the large number of varieties and hybrids and their adaptability to different regions of the state.

In addition to being the driving force behind the yield test program and establishing the seed certification program, Robinson worked with seed producer associations, directed state and international grain shows, and promoted hybrid corn production. He also brought together various corn, grain, soybean and other seed producing organization to form the umbrella organization, Iowa Corp Improvement Association. And he had a broad view that future improvements will require breakthroughs in plant structure, soil nutrients, water supplies and other inputs.

Robinson was author of more than 90 publications and Extension bulletins. He also wrote a book on the history of the Iowa Crop Improvement Association. Robinson was a member of the American Society of Agronomy, Sigma Xi, Gamma Sigma Delta, and the International Crop Improvement Association. He was inducted into the ISU Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1982.

Joe Robinson married Ruth Nash of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1919. They did not have any children. Robinson died on January 8, 1990, and was buried in Ames, Iowa

Selections of text republished with permission from Iowans who made a difference: 150 years of agricultural progress by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, published by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, 1996. 

Selected Sources

Joe L. Robinson papers, RS 9/9/57, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library.

Robinson, Joe L. and Reiss, Francis (1944) "The 1943 Iowa corn yield test," Bulletin P: Vol. 2 : Bulletin P58 , Article 1.
Available at:

Robinson, Joe L. and Bryan, A. A., "Iowa Corn Yield Test, Results for 1932" (1933). Iowa Corn Yield Tests. 15.

Robinson, Joe L. and Bryan, A. A., "Iowa Corn Yield Test, Results for 1928" (1928). Iowa Corn Yield Tests. 11.

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