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Ear After Ear After Ear

First Things

In this issue of Farm Collector, Don McKinley walks us through the process of picking corn by hand. Today, that activity is little more than a novelty. For some, it fans the flames of nostalgia. For others, it represents discovery of the past. But there was a time, a very long time, when no alternative existed: Corn was picked by hand. End of discussion.

Understanding the technique is easy enough. The trick for many today is to understand the actual impetus. Until you truly absorb the fact that, from the beginning of time until the 1920s, all corn was harvested by hand, one ear at a time, it is pretty easy to ignore the enormity of the undertaking.

It is astonishing how dismissive some in today’s audience can be. A farmer planted only what he could harvest. Pre-hybrid yields were smaller. The U.S. economy was built on a foundation of thousands and thousands of small farms. There were fewer distractions; farm kids were actively involved in the process. Blah, blah, blah. I picked corn by hand for 10 minutes one pretty day last fall: I get it.

A lot of things come into clear focus when you consider picking an entire crop by hand, ear after ear after ear. A work ethic unfamiliar with the concept of surrender. The critically important economy of motion. Zero tolerance of waste. A discipline strong enough to stare down the relentlessness of it: row after row, field after field, day after day, week after week; rain, snow, cold.

The number of those who picked corn by hand because they had to is shrinking at a steady clip today. Some old-timers look back on the experience and say “Good riddance.” Others work to preserve that heritage, helping new generations understand what it took to create today’s world. None, I’m betting, want to see it sentimentalized. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

And that is exactly what Don McKinley delivers in his article. How can you truly appreciate the technological leap represented by a mechanized picker until you understand what came before? In the end, it was nothing more than a simple tool that would fit in the space occupied by these words – and an iron will. FC