Written for the First Saturday Writers, led by Liz Paterra
We grew corn. I don’t know the variety. It was just field corn as compared to sugar corn and pop corn. It was probably 95% yellow, 4% red and less than 1% would be multicolored.
Back when Mom and Dad bought the farm in 1910, corn was the only crop along with a huge garden. There was no place to take tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Plus they didn’t have a truck. No farmer had ever heard of soy beans.
Hominy was a major food for poor farmers. It is made from field corn and it is a long process to make it fit to eat. My mother said she made it only one time when she was a young girl. In the Southwest it is still a staple. Supermarkets have pallets of hominy in gallon cans.
Agricultural colleges had determined that it took one-third of what the farm produced to maintain the animals that made farming possible. We always had two mules, sometimes a horse and usually one cow. Always a yard full of chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and guineas.
In the 1930’s we built a chicken house and began raising chickens commercially. Maybe raising a thousand at a time. They all needed shelled corn. We ended up raising fifteen thousand at a time, four broods a year.
Some farmers used their excess corn to make whiskey. I know Mom and Dad never made any corn whiskey, but their son did. He had a small still as far back in the woods as possible. Years later, he was always making wine; strawberry, grape, pear or apple. One summer, a friend in the produce section at the Acme Store gave him a lot of over-ripe fruit; bananas, oranges, apples, pears and so-on. He mashed it all up in a wooden barrel, threw in some dandelions and raisins. The raisins were to provide a natural occurring yeast.
The barrel sat in his yard all summer, covered with a piece of cloth to keep out flies and bees. The fermenting smell attracted bees from miles around. The end product was a strong yellow wine. Everyone loved his dandelion wine.
We used a lot of the corn plant. The younger children stripped the blades off, made a bundle, let it dry for a week or two hanging from a stalk. Then it was stored in the barn loft for winter fodder. My older brothers cut off the entire top above the ear. This also was dried and stored in the loft.
Near the house, we cut down the entire plant at the roots. These were arranged in a shock which you see on Halloween. The whole corn stalk was thrown into the pasture for the mules and cow.
The pre-WW11 corn plant was small and producing one small ear of corn. The farmer would be lucky to get forty bushels per acre. Both were getting larger through selective planting. When Spring came around, Dad would root through the corn crib, picking out the biggest ears. Mostly yellow with an occasional red ear. Kernels on both ends were shelled off for the chickens, leaving only nice, big healthy kernels to plant.
The field was ready. Dad had plowed the entire farm with a single plow pulled by two mules, walking behind the plow every step of the way. Next, the two mules pulled a drag over the field to smooth the ridges made by the plow.
During the early years of the farm, Dad used a one-row planter that was pulled by a single mule. Plant across the field and back, one kernel every ten inches. Then re-fill the corn and fertilizer hoppers or containers. Repeat the process over and over until you reached the end of the field.
The corn plant has both sexes. The tassel at the top is the male part and produces millions of pollen grains. The ear is the female part with each silk going to an egg cell that will become one kernel. If there was no wind during the time frame when the pollen was released, the corn may be largely self-pollinated.
If there was a nice breeze, the pollen would be blown all over the field and the corn would be mostly cross-pollinated. For this reason, sugar corn and pop corn were grown as far as possible from the field corn.
Dad would have a hundred foot wide strip of the field devoted to garden plants. There would be tomato patch, a watermelon patch, a cantaloupe patch and so on.
Dad planted an early variety of sugar corn first. Since he was huckstering in Ocean City he wanted sugar corn by the Fourth of July. Sugar corn seeds are sold by how long it takes to mature and be ready to eat. Ninety-day corn is the average.
The first planting would be an eighty-five day variety. Corn is actually a grass and can stand some cold temperatures. What would kill a tomato or a pepper plant will only slow up a corn plant, especially a variety bred for cold weather. The ripe sugar corn would only last about two weeks before it became too mature and hard to eat.
Dad planted sugar corn in two week intervals. This would give him fresh corn right up to Labor day. The old sugar corn was pulled and fed to the hogs.
Country Gentleman and Stowell’s Evergreen were the two varieties of sugar corn that we planted. The Country Gentleman kernels are not in rows. The kernels are scattered haphazardly on the ear.
Pop corn was planted last and in an isolated area. We didn’t want it to cross-pollinate with anything.
Up to and including World War11, we planted seeds from the previous year’s crop.
Then hybrid corn came to the farm. The new ear was larger and had more kernels. Some plants produced two ears of corn. Some matured faster. We had DeKalb, Pioneer and Funks to chose from.
My brother was the first farmer in Worcester County to grow a hundred bushels per acre on a selected acre around 1950. It was a small field that had been heavily manured and fertilized.
Henry Wallace was an early pioneer in hybrid usage and promotion. He was vice-president in 1940 under Franklin Roosevelt. He was booted off the ticket in 1944 in backroom skulduggery. Harry Truman was nominated instead.
In the late 1940’s we bought our first mechanical corn picker. It was towed by the tractor and picked one row. No engine, it operated off of the tractor’s PTO. (Power Take Off is a splined shaft protruding from the tractor’s rear end. Ford had over fifty implements that would attach to the PTO and the three-point-hitch. Other tractors also had a pulley coming off the side of the engine.) It shucked the corn and a conveyor belt dropped the corn into a wagon attached to the picker. When the wagon was full, it was taken to the corn crib and tossed in.
Even with a one-row mechanical corn picker, it took a month or more to pick fifty acres. Excessive rain or a strong wind would blow the stalk over making it impossible for the corn picker to get it. A hurricane was a disaster.
The corn picker missed a lot of ears. Ears that had fallen or broke off in the process of being picked. People would ask the owner to pick up this corn for half.
Today the farmer has a self-propelled eight row corn harvester that also shells the corn. It is sold that same day to a feed mill. It is harvested around Labor Day and picks 99% of the corn.
Now it is illegal to save and plant last year’s seeds. Monsanto owns the patent for the hybrid seed and will sue you in a heartbeat.