Once A Year, Farmers Go Back To Picking Corn By Hand — For Fun

Oct 18, 2014
Originally published on October 18, 2014 2:46 pm

Frank Hennenfent is a typical Illinois farmer. At this time of year, he spends countless hours in an air-conditioned, GPS-equipped combine – an enormous machine that can harvest as many as 12 rows of corn at a time.

But in late September, Hennenfent was going back to the basics. He was a top competitor at the 34th annual Illinois State Corn Husking Competition.

This contest is held in a corn field in Roseville, a community in western Illinois. It's one of nine competitions happening during harvest season all across the Midwest. For some, picking corn by hand is about more than winning. It's about a connection to the past and remembering the older generations who labored in the fields.

"When I pick corn I totally lose myself in it," Hennenfent says.

Standing at the end of a long row, he squares off against a field of corn.

Hennenfent begins picking the corn with his hands, slicing through the husk with a hook that's attached to his palm with a leather strap. Then, he snaps the golden ear off its stalk, and tosses it over his shoulder into a wagon following alongside.

As he makes his way down the row, corn flies through the air. He's in the zone. "You don't really hear anybody around you or anything," he says. "It's just next ear, next ear, next ear.

There are several races throughout the day — ranging from 2-minute peewee contests for the kids to 20-minute matches for those 50 and up.

The original competitions began in 1924 and grew in popularity in the 1930s as farmers struggled through the Depression and the dry days of the Dust Bowl. Back then, state competitions routinely drew crowds in the thousands and in 1938, newspapers reported 125,000 spectators attended the national competition in Iowa. For context, Soldier Field, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears, holds 61,500 fans.

Don McKinley grew up in the 1930s in southwestern Iowa on a farm with 100 acres of corn. During the harvest, he and his brothers would drop out of school for two months to help their dad pick corn from before sun up till after dark. "We just fall over into bed, collapse, get up the next morning and do it all over again," he says.

McKinley says each of them brought in about 4,500 pounds a day. That's a lot of corn.

But today, a big combine harvests close to 200,000 pounds an hour. To get the same results, you'd need more than 2,000 people picking by hand.

"My dad would turn over in his grave if he knew there was a machine that could pick that much," McKinley says.

Back in the corn field, Frank Hennenfent is finishing his race and he's attracted a crowd. He picked 450 pounds of corn in 20 minutes.

It might not be good enough to compete with John Deere. But it will take him to the national competition being held Sunday in Amana, Iowa.

Abby Wendle reports from Illinois for Tri States Public Radio and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. A version of this story originally appeared on Harvest Public Media's site.

Copyright 2017 Tri States Public Radio. To see more, visit Tri States Public Radio.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Across the Midwest, the race is on to bring in the corn. As Abby Wendle of Tri States Public Radio reports, some people harvest corn differently than you might imagine.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: Frank Hennenfent is a typical Illinois farmer. At this time of year he spends countless hours in an air-conditioned, GPS-equipped combine, an enormous machine that can harvest as many as 12 rows of corn at a time. But today Hennenfent is going back to the basics. He's a top competitor at the 34th annual Illinois State Corn Husking Competition.

FRANK HENNENFENT: When I pick corn I totally lose myself in it.

WENDLE: Standing at the end of a long row, he squares off against a field of corn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Announcing) Three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Announcing) Begin. Begin. Begin.

WENDLE: Hennenfent begins picking the corn with his hands, slicing through the husk with a hook that's attached to his palm with a leather strap. Then he snaps the golden ear off its stalk and tosses it over his shoulder into a wagon following alongside. As he makes his way down the row, corn flies through the air. He's in the zone.

HENNENFENT: You don't really hear anybody around you or anything. It's just next ear, next ear, next ear.

WENDLE: This contest is held in a corn field in Roseville, a community in western Illinois. It's one of nine competitions happening during harvest season all across the Midwest. There are several races throughout the day, ranging from two-minute peewee contests for the kids to 20 minute matches for those 50 and up. Some of the older competitors remember a time when picking corn by hand wasn't a competition, it was a way of life.

Don McKinley grew up in the 1930s in southwestern Iowa on a farm with 100 acres of corn. During the harvest, he and his brothers would drop out of school for two months to help their dad pick corn from sun up 'til after dark.

DON MCKINLEY: You'd just fall over into bed, collapse. Get up the next morning, do it all over again.

WENDLE: McKinley says each of them brought in about 4,500 pounds a day. That's a lot of corn. But today, a big combine harvests close to 200,000 pounds an hour. To get the same results you'd need more than 2,000 people picking by hand.

MCKINLEY: My dad would turn over in his grave if he knew that there was a machine that could pick that much.

WENDLE: Back in the corn field, Frank Hennenfent is finishing his race and he's attracted a crowd. Ardith Clair watches in awe.

ARDITH CLAIR: It doesn't seem like he's hurrying. I mean, he's got one hitting the bumper board, one in the air and he's got his hand on the third one. And he's just like a machine.

WENDLE: He picked 450 pounds of corn in 20 minutes.

HENNENFENT: Two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Announcing) You're done. You're done. You're done.

HENNENFENT: Did you hear that? You're done. You're done.

WENDLE: It might not be good enough to compete with John Deere, but it will take him to the national competition in Amana, Iowa.

For NPR News I'm Abby Wendle.

SIMON: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production in the Midwest.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.