CHICAGOAN OF THE CORN: MY EXPERIENCE HARVESTING CORN FOR THE CITY PRODUCE PROJECT

As a college student, I have a general rule for mornings; stay in bed as long as possible. On Thursday, however, I found myself waiting at the train station at 6:50 a.m. to pick up my friend Ryan because we were going on an adventure. We were going corn harvesting in Manhattan, IL. Armed with bug spray, sunscreen, caffeine and Twinkies, these two city kids were on the road south to lend a hand to farmers who were aiding the City Produce Project supported by Monsanto and the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. While in the car, I explained the program to my yawning partner in crime.

“The corn is going to be sent to a food pantry and then given to people who live in food deserts,” I said.

“Where is there a desert around here,” Ryan asked. More caffeine.

I started to question this adventure as the trek took us through landscape less dotted with buildings and more defined by various crops indistinguishable to my untrained urban eye. But after navigating country detours and gravel roads with my not-as-trusty-as-you’d-expect GPS, there was no turning back. I parked my car behind a pick-up truck and next to a tractor, and Ryan and I left bliss known as air-conditioning behind.

“It’s hot. I mean…no, really, it is hot,” I observed in discomfort. I questioned my choices in farming fashion, wondering if I should have dressed for extreme heat, but surprisingly enough, I made a smart decision.

When picking corn, it is a good idea to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, plus eye protection. I split the difference on all counts, opting for capris, short-sleeved t-shirt and goofy sunglasses. Truth be told, I looked goofy, period.

With a high-five and a “Let’s DO THIS!” affirmation, we joined a large group of volunteers in the field. There were several kids helping, some of which were from a church group and some were Boy Scouts, and all seemed very eager to help. I noticed a photographer snapping pictures of all the hard work and also heard John Kiefner, a farmer who planted corn for City Produce Project, giving a very energetic interview.

Ryan and I introduced ourselves to an experienced corn harvester and received a quick tutorial. After another high-five and bout of nervous laughter, I got to pickin’. A corn stalk had anywhere between one and three ears of corn growing on it. The first stalk I grabbed had a large ear of corn, so I took hold and tried to rip it off the stalk. It didn’t budge. At all. Embarrassment ensued.

Ryan surrounded by broken stalks

I swallowed my pride and asked a young volunteer next to me, “Wait…I maybe missed something here. How do you do this again?” He said, “Like this,” and ripped that sucker clean off without a hitch. I needed to man up. After that small hiccup, it was smooth sailing; remove the corn, then break the stalk so it would fall to the ground and make way for the next. The crops themselves were actually very resilient, with leaves firm enough to give me a small cut similar to a paper-cut on the top of my hand. It even drew a small amount of blood, but nothing was going to get me to cry uncle in front of these seasoned harvesters. Not even the fact that I was smeared with mud. Yuck.

Once the corn was removed from the stalk, I was told to peel back a small section of the husk to make sure the corn was acceptable to be donated. It was important to harvest as much good corn as we could, considering the crop was going to those in underserved communities. Every ear counted.

“If it’s yellow and developed, throw it in the bucket,” said our corn guru. I took that advice maybe too literally, and did my best Michael Jordan lay-up with my corn haul.

“She shoots…she scores,” Kiefner exclaimed while driving a tractor in reverse. Who says a city girl can’t have fun on a farm?

After my re-enactment of the Chicago Bulls Championship run of 1993, Ryan and I dumped the bucket of corn onto a large flat-bed truck. Kiefner drove the truck from the field and into the barn, where the corn was loaded into sacks. The barn was also where the volunteers could refuel and get a minute away from the beating rays of the sun (did I mention it was hot?). Volunteers sat down on any suitable area they could find and sipped on water to prevent dehydration.

The field after all the sweet corn was harvested

Jim Robbins, the owner of the farm, helped facilitate the action within the barn while Kiefner worked outside. During my time in the barn, I got to see all of the volunteers at once; there was significantly more than I had anticipated. I signed my name onto a sheet that was passed around the barn, and I was amazed that my name fit on the second sheet of paper.

While I didn’t get a chance to really interact with many of the other helpers, I did take a moment to chat with a lady who had videotaped us working in the field. When she asked where I was from, I told her Chicago.

“Wow, what are you doing down here,” she asked.

“I’m here to help on behalf of the City Produce Project,” I said. Noticing her confusion, I continued, “This corn will be cycled into this program. After it leaves the farm, it will be distributed to families who have little access to fresh vegetables otherwise. It’s designed to improve nutrition in places that don’t have the opportunity to experience fresh, local food like this. It’s a good thing.”

And that’s when it hit me.

It really is a good thing. While getting up before fast food joints stop serving breakfast and driving down a gravel road isn’t going to be a lifestyle that’s calling my name, I have a new appreciation for fresh food. The farmers seemed so grateful for the help, expressing that we managed to finish a day-long job for two people in just about two hours. Plus knowing the corn was going to city residents in need rather than a supermarket produce section halfway across the country solidified a sense of just plain “good.”

For more information about the City Produce Project, check out their Twitter at http://twitter.com/CityProdProj

Nicky Hunter
The Kineo Group Intern

Leave a Reply