The Missouri Meerschaum Corn Cob Pipe Company
The Missouri Meerschaum Corn Cob Pipe Company is smoking. The only one of its kind left in the world, this small company manufactures corncob pipes, but with a twist: the only possible way to produce the pipes is by using vintage corn harvesting machinery.
Located on the Missouri riverfront in the small town of Washington, Mo., the three-story brick building houses 50 employees working through the week, year around. Production is close to 5,000 pipes per day, to be shipped to retailers across the world. Mike Lechtenberg, co-owner of the factory, says that the company caters to a worldwide market (except in China, by personal choice). Individual brokers, who usually sell 14 to 200 items, along with the Missouri pipes, are but a small piece of the pie. The company sells to chain stores around the world, including Walgreen's and Rite Aid. These humble pipes can be found at your local grocery store, and at one of the most exclusive pipe shops in Vienna.
When he bought into the company several years ago, Mike, of Lawrence, Kan., took a look around at the competition. At that time, three other companies in the United States manufactured corncob pipes. Now, the Missouri Meerschaum Company stands alone. The decline, he says, is due to a shrinking number of distributors. 'If you're selling something on commission, are you going to be interested in selling something where you only earn a dollar?' he asks. 'Probably not. You're going to go for the more expensive items.'
However, because scarcity causes demand, business is booming for this small Missouri company.
The process of making a corncob pipe is more complicated than you might think. First, there is the question of the corn.
'We use mostly white corn.' Mike says. 'It's a premium corn that goes mostly to make taco shells, and that sort of thing.' In the past, the company paid farmers to raise corn for them, but recently they have begun to grow their own, on 150-acres close to the company building. The reason? In part, because genetically-engineered corn has taken over the market.
Mike outlines what is usually thought of as progress. 'It used to be that the corn stalks were 12 to 15 feet high, and the output was 8,000 - 10,000 per acre. Now, the stalks are taller, and the output is more like 20,000 - 30,000 per acre. We've had to re-engineer our crops to get back to the old corn. We've gotten the stalks down to eight or nine feet tall, and the cob is much harder, which is what we want.'
However, he admits, shrinking down the stalk lowered the position of the ears, which means they don't get as much sun. But it's a problem they live with. 'They used to toss the corn, still on the cobs, to the farm animals - pigs, horses, and so on. They would eat everything but that cob, because it was so hard. That's the kind of cob we need.' The harder cob is partly due to a lower moisture content, which becomes important when the corn is picked. If the moisture is too high, the corn molds on the cob, and ruins the harvest. 'It doesn't affect the cob,' Mike says wryly. 'But it sure makes a mess.' It also ruins the kernals the company sells to vendors. The company experiments with crossing and breeding its own corn. Ed Murphy, the company's general manager, is in charge of that operation.
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