Update: This Market to Market article/video provides a fascinating look at the old method of handpicking corn--a scene resembling a Norman Rockwell painting with people from all over the country gathered for a competition rooted in hard work.
That's the One We've Been Lookin' for, Boys"
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.”
Handpicking 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.”
Handpicking 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: handpick 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 relylocal.com)