Thursday, September 18, 2014

Corn Harvest, Then & Now

Combine & Grain Wagon, 2014
Last week farmers in our area began harvesting dry land corn.  With rain in the forecast, they pulled into the field adjacent to our farm home to begin cutting at dusk as dark clouds approached.

Last year I intended to photograph the corn harvest on Isaac's land, but they cut it at night, and all I was able to photograph were the strong headlights of the combine as it moved through the darkness.  I had photographed the corn a few days earlier, so this post will include images of "Isaac's" 2013 corn, as well as images taken last week in our field.

Isaac had no horse of his own to help him break sod for several years (See "Isaac's Dolly Varden," 12-28-2012 in the blog archives about acquiring his first horse.)  He had to swap his labor in exchange for a neighbor's labor +  horse + equipment to break his sod, and it took a great deal of his own labor as a field hand or carpenter to balance the trade.  With little plowed ground to plant, he planted sod corn right in the unplowed prairie, resulting in poor returns for his efforts.  Eventually he had Dolly, and then more horses, to break sod and to plant his corn in plowed fields.

 2013 Corn on Isaac's old Homestead land
The equipment Isaac used for planting and harvesting his corn was quite primitive and small, especially compared to today's farm equipment.  Interestingly, one thing Isaac and today's farmers have in common is the need for a good banker when it is time to purchase new equipment!  Generations of farmers have needed to borrow the money for new equipment.  The first time Isaac went into debt was when he purchased Dolly and borrowed enough extra to begin buying equipment that could be pulled by a horse.  Prior to that time, all of his equipment was man-powered, and even after he had a horse, he struggled to find equipment that worked well in his sandy loam soil.  (See "Isaac's Farm Implements," 6-21-2012 for a photograph of a Hand Corn Planter.)  When he purchased a corn drill to try, with the option of returning it if he didn't like the way it worked, he found that it dropped too many kernels some of the time and dropped none some of the time.  He returned the drill and continued hand planting.

Cut stalks, cobs, and missed ears, 2014

Today's combines move through a field, cutting stalks, removing the ears from the stalks and the kernel from the cobs before filling the bin with the clean, golden corn.  When the combine bin is full, the corn is augured into the grain wagon on-the-go, so that the combine can continue harvesting the standing corn in the field.  The corn is then transferred from the grain wagon into the larger grain truck waiting in the road to take the corn to market or to store in the farmer's huge grain bins.  (See "What Do I Do With My Crop?--Parts I and II," 1-2-2014 and 1-9-2014.)  For the early homesteaders like Isaac, preparing their corn for market was far more human-labor intensive.

Growing corn on Isaac's former homestead in 2013
Just as the Indians are said to have used every part of the buffalo that they killed, not just the meat and hide, the homesteaders used every part of the corn plant they harvested.  They may have chosen to remove the ears of corn in the field, but most farmers, like Isaac, cut the stalks near the ground and stacked them in  teepee-like corn shocks of bound or unbound bundled stalks for curing or drying.  Before the 1890s, few farmers had a corn binder to cut and bundle the corn into sheaves, and the job was done by hand, one stalk at a time.  Whether the ears were removed from the standing corn in the field or from the corn shocks later, much work remained to be done.

Isaac former homestead planted in a circle of corn in 2013

The corn shuck or husk around the corn had to be removed, a chore called shucking. That exposed the corn, but it remained on the husk until it was shelled, a job that may have been done by hand or with a crude machine.  The farmer would have set aside his best ears from which to save the kernels for planting the next year's crop.  The rest of the shelled corn might have been marketed or it may have been ground to feed his livestock.

Because there were no trees in the early years, the dry corn stalks were cut into lengths to burn as fuel for their stoves.  The husks were tied in knots to slow their rate of burning, and were also used as fuel, as were the corn cobs.  Homesteaders took advantage of every part of the harvested plant in their struggle to survive on the prairie.

The photograph above shows the types of litter that a modern combine may leave on the ground. Often, the harvested fields are fenced for cattle to fatten on the corn that escaped the combine's paddle.  The roots of the corn plant will help hold the sandy loam soil against the onslaught of the strong prairie winds until the soil is cultivated for the next season's crop.

Beyond our new landscaping, a field of green corn, summer 2014
Isaac was a very progressive farmer, and he even invented a 4-horse cultivator to allow one farmer to cover more ground quickly.  There were a few steam-powered combines operating in the fields before Isaac's death, and he approved of the mechanical advances to allow a farmer to farm more acres.  Each generation has increased the number of acres owned or rented on their family farms, so that the number of farming residents in Isaac's old community has sharply decreased as one farmer cultivates more land.  The myth of "Wide Open Spaces on the Lonesome Prairie" that people imagine during the Homesteading Years is actually a better description of living in Isaac's old community today.        

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Your last line is a sad commentary, Lyn.
I read somewhere about community corn husking bees and a tradition of single young people kissing, related to finding coloured kernels? Is this true? Combine harvesters could never replace that! Isaac should have participated in more of these.