A city fellow once said, “Sue, farmers sure have it easy; they just plant and
sit in a bar swapping stories ’til it’s time to harvest.” He’d seen a farmer
in the air conditioned cab of a picker/sheller, “listening to country music
as he drove.”
Not so! He was probably racing to get his corn picked before the storm and
checking market prices so he could direct his haulers to the elevator with the
best offer that day.
Today’s harvest is certainly not like the traditional image of a sweaty fellow
in overalls and a straw hat, swinging a long, heavy knife while collecting a
big load of corn in his free arm. He stacks it and then props it up into a
teepee-shaped shock -- stalks, leaves, grain, tassels and all. In that
position, the ears of corn have shucks for “raincoats” and will be picked
and shucked, one ear at a time, on winter days. Alas, methods have changed!
Here’s how Dad produced corn for his cows when I was a child. He saved a
basket full of the best ears from each year’s crop to get seed for the next.
On a cold winter day he’d sit with that basket at his side and a container in
his lap. He’d shell off the irregular end grains from each ear and save them
for the chickens. Then he’d shell the best kernels into the container and toss
the cobs in a gunny sack to use for kindling fires. He’d inspect the saved
kernels and cast out anything that wasn’t seed quality. This was routine in
days when the word “hybrid” related to mules but not to seed corn. Dad put
the dry seed in an open weave cloth bag and hung it from rafters in a way that
thwarted the attempts of rodents who might try to get it.
The next year’s crop also started with plowing in the fall. Dad hitched Jack
and Kate to the walking plow, turned to its side and dragged it to the field.
The leather driving lines were tied together and around his body.
First, he’d lay off a land. He drove the mules by voice and by an occasional
slap or tug on the lines. Both hands were busily guiding the plow to cut
straight furrows, the proper depth and width. The fresh soil tumbled over
exposing old roots, fishing worms and an occasional black snake or bumble bee
nest. Working back and forth across the field for hours at a time, for several
days, he prepared 30 or 40 acres to lay fallow all winter. Freezing and
thawing would mellow the ground.
In the spring, when the soil was ready, he’d ride the disk to break up the
plowed ground. He’d harrow the fields to further pulverize the soil. Some men
used rollers, heavy metal things, somewhat like a disk, that broke up clods
In early summer, Dad poured his precious seed into the planter hoppers. He
drove a metal post at each end of the row to stretch a tight guide wire. The
wire had knots at regular intervals which triggered the planter to discharge
three grains in a regular pattern, in hills 3 feet apart. Special plates in
hopper bottoms dispensed the corn, which went through a spout and into the
ground. At about that same moment, the wide, concave planter wheel pressed
soft earth against the seeds.
Mr. City Fellow, Dad didn’t have time for country music. He often whistled a
happy tune as he worked.