Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hand Picking Corn--an Art and a Hazard

Dad recently turned 87, but he still drives tractors and helps with the harvest. Although he respects the old days of farming, he’s a proponent of modern tech. “Can you imagine what it would be like to hand harvest the projected 14 billion bushels of U.S. corn this year?” he asks. “Even when the yields were much smaller, farmers usually figured on spending from early October to perhaps early December pulling ‘em in one ear at a time.”

Hand picking corn was an art and a hazard. Apparently the virtuosos would constantly have one ear of corn in hand and another one flying off to the wagon. Most pickers used a metal hook or peg attached to their hand to rip the shuck. “Ears were expected to be clean as a ribbon,” says Dad. “And successful pickers had talented teammates—in the form of smart horses. They’d respond to the picker’s commands, and some horses instinctively knew when to move ahead by listening to the corn hit the bang board.”

Corn didn’t always hit the wagon board after it left the picker’s hand. “It was common enough to get hit in the head with an ear thrown from someone picking in an outside row,” said Dad. “My friend Don was from a family of 12, so they had plenty of targets in the field. They made Don's left-handed brother pick with a separate wagon because he was tossing from the other side, and his throws could be lethal.”

Hand picking could get competitive back then. Dad spoke with a 94-year-old from Hubbard who took on a challenge and claims to have harvested 200 bushels in one day. “He only got four cents a bushel,” said Dad, “and he even spent time unloading the wagons. But he was justly proud of his work.”

Competitions still occur to this day, as this Harvest Public Media video reports. This recent contest in Illinois had a simple goal: hand pick as much corn as you can in 20 minutes. The winner was philosophical about it all. “It’s a connection to the past and a way to remember my dad.”

Old timers faced blizzards, “downed” cornstalks, stubborn mules, and endless patches of cockleburs, but they took pride in pulling in the crop before winter. The crews included hired hands, teenagers (some schools took a two-week harvest vacation), and day workers (aka the good old boys hanging out in front of Henry’s Tavern). Dad spoke with one old farmer who put it in perspective. “We’ve hauled nearly as much corn in the past few days as my Uncle Fred harvested during the entire fall of 1939. He hired out to pick corn by hand for a neighbor. By Thanksgiving, he’d picked 4,400 bushels, and by my reckoning, that’s 260,000 ears, and he did it one ear at a time. He got paid $175, enough to pay off his car loan.”

According to Dad, no one picked on Sunday back then. “Even the horses knew it was a day off.” But the crop came in, and sometime in late November or early December, the ritual ended. “And sure enough,” says Dad, “when that final ear of corn hit the bang board, some joker would call out, ‘That’s the one we’ve been looking for boys.’”

by dan gogerty (John Bloom painting from

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Baseball's Zen Cathedral in a Field of Corn

During this era of NFL-mania, baseball has faded—at times the sport seems to walk into an Iowa cornfield and disappear among the tall, mysterious stalks. But autumn is World Series time, and anyone with a baseball soul can pause long enough to enjoy “America’s pastime.”

One unlikely spot where the spirit of baseball has not died is on a farm east of Dyersville, Iowa. Twenty-five years ago a film crew put the wraps on a Hollywood venture that included an obsessed farmer, his hipster wife, and a group of benign walking dead baseball players. James Earl Jones gave his “people will come, Ray, people will most definitely come” speech—and they have. As many as 75,000 fans a year visit the Field of Dreams, and this video report from Market to Market gives insights about its appeal.

I grew up in Iowa and my cousin lives two miles from the actual Field of Dreams, but I first heard of the movie while living in Tokyo. News reports started floating in about a Kevin Costner baseball movie, and a few American friends at the school where I worked ribbed me about a corny film from Iowa. I’d read W.P.  Kinsella’s wonderful Shoeless Joe novel, so when someone passed along a VHS version of the movie, I cued it up. 

As I watched the beauty of my home state in the background, I thought about the pace of life, the traditions of the past, and the relationships we foster—or don’t. I let the film flow over me like a well-played baseball game—some hits, some errors, and plenty of time to think things through. Moonlight Graham walks away from something he loves—baseball—to work on something he loves more—healing the sick. Shoeless Joe makes an unwitting mistake that costs him dearly. Ty Cobb is such a jerk the others tell him to get lost—even after he is dead. And Ray Kinsella is haunted by his estrangement from his dead father who makes a weird but touching appearance at the end.

I was away from the United States for several years, but I’d kept some baseball connections—even if they then included unified “gambate chants,” sushi at the concession stands, and team names that included the Yokohama Whales and the Nippon Ham Fighters. Those two names have since changed, but Japan’s love of baseball hasn’t, and 25 years ago that sentiment made Field of Dreams a huge hit there. I’m not sure what most Japanese film-goers thought of a school board meeting in Our Town, Iowa, but the idea of ancestor worship hit a home run. When Ray calls out to his father and asks him to “have a catch,” nothing is lost in translation.

Our family stopped at the field several times when our kids were young—and yes, we “had a catch.” Sometimes we’d walk onto the field with only a few others around, the classic farm house sitting up the lane, the wind blowing gently through the iconic corn. At other times, a tour bus might pull in from Chicago—chances were that Japanese tourists would file off with gloves, cameras, and a desire to connect with some zen mixture of sport, nostalgia, and heritage.

Like baseball, the actual Field of Dreams has been the center of controversy, fame, good times, and bad. But when the sun is shining and family members are playing ball, the place truly is heaven.

by dan gogerty  (top photo from, bottom one from

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Award Winning Scientist Calls for Better Ag Communication

Note: ag/science parody video of Ylvis here--"What Do the Facts Say?" 

CAST presented Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam with the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award at a World Food Prize side event on October 15. For more details of the event, click here

“I’m Willing To Deal with Controversial Topics," says Van Eenennaam

A good communicator gets the message across, and this year’s Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner has a way with words. The University of California-Davis animal science extension specialist and researcher believes it is important to step out of the lab and classroom often enough to let the public and policymakers know the facts. “Hunger is the enemy,” says Van Eenennaam, “and starvation is a story that needs to be told.” She believes that tech and science play major roles in the struggle to feed billions, and she also worries that scientists are being outmaneuvered by bad science and skewed sources.

Dr. Van Eenennaam proposes ways to rectify this imbalance. The agriculture community needs to

  • be proactive and develop communication skills,
  • stick with the truth and peer-reviewed facts,
  • listen to all stakeholders while weighing the pros and cons,
  • and push for more interdisciplinary publicly funded research.
What Do the Facts Say?

Dr. Van Eenennaam puts her words into action. She has participated in 60 respected publications; she continues to teach and perform research; and she uses various methods to communicate, including scores of presentations, T.V. appearances, and press interviews.

During the past few years, Van Eenennaam has also used video production as a “medium to deliver her message.” With help from students and staff at UC-Davis, she has won acclaim for several film clips, and her newest production combines insights, humor, and tech skills to ask the question: “What Do the Facts Say?” This parody of a Ylvis hit cleverly looks at the need for scientists to not only find the facts but also be willing to wave the truth like a flag as the agriculture community strives to produce enough food for our growing population.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s birth, the selection of Alison Van Eenennaam as the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award winner is especially appropriate to honor his legacy of science research and agricultural communication.

Note: Dr. Van Eenennaam has chaired two influential CAST publications, one about the potential impacts of mandatory GMO labeling, and one about genetically engineered animals.