Living Out Loud

Pulling Corn


I've engaged in physically demanding tasks in my life, ranging from a 25-mile forced march carrying my gear during Infantry Basic Training to biking over 100 miles, backpacking through mountains, and staying awake for 48 hours while hunting for escaped prison inmates. However, the days I spent doing farm work as a teenager in high school left me more exhausted than anything else. My uncle owned a small 60-acre farm, which was the remaining portion of a larger spread purchased for a few dollars an acre during the depression and gradually sold off for residential development starting in the 60s.

We cultivated the entire property with vegetables, known as truck farming in our area. My uncle and I, along with a tenant who lived on the farm and several high school students we hired, were responsible for all the labor. We sold all the produce directly to the public on the farm; none of it was taken to any market. Some of the row crops allowed our customers to pick their own produce at a discounted price, but the majority of the harvest was gathered by a farm employee. Picture 1,000 tomato plants raised waist-high, acres of butter beans, snap beans, field peas, English peas, Irish potatoes, pumpkins, squash, okra, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, and my least favorite crop of all: sweet corn, also known as roasting ears in the rural community.

Don't misunderstand me. The Silver Queen variety of white sweet corn, fresh from the field, is one of the most delightful treats a garden can offer. However, when it comes to mass production, harvesting sweet corn is grueling, exhausting work that I wouldn't wish upon anyone, not even my worst enemy. The manual harvesting of corn is commonly referred to as "pulling" due to the motion required to detach an ear from the stalk. Pulling must commence as close to daybreak as possible when the stalks and leaves are covered in dew, leaving you drenched within minutes of starting the harvest. A large burlap or nylon cattle feed bag is strapped across your body, stretching from the ground to your mid-chest level. As you move between two rows of corn, you pull the fresh ears from both sides of you. The sack quickly fills up, and you have to lift it off the ground and kick it forward with your feet as you move down the rows. When the bag becomes too full to kick any further, you wrap your arms around it and head towards a wagon being pulled by an older man who lived on the farm, hitched to a tractor. After emptying your bag, you immediately return to the field to fill it up again, repeating the process countless times.

During the first couple of days of corn pulling season, we would occasionally see my uncle driving his pickup truck across the field from the barn where customers came to purchase the corn for one or two dollars per dozen ears (I can't quite recall the exact price, as this all occurred nearly 45 years ago). He would park his truck near our location and tell us to pick up the pace, as the corn was selling faster than we could harvest it, and he didn't want the customers to have to wait. He was not the type of man you would argue with, so everyone who was pulling would do their best to work faster and keep him satisfied.

Usually, we would finish pulling for the day by lunchtime, gathering just enough to last through the afternoon and evening. For lunch, my aunt would lay out loaves of bread purchased from the day-old store, along with a gallon or two of iced tea, plates of freshly sliced tomatoes, and a large jar of Dukes mayonnaise. Perhaps there would even be a platter of her specialty, fresh squash fritters.

After lunch, we still had to collect the other crops that had longer, less pressing harvest seasons. There was always some maintenance work to be done, such as hoeing weeds, and customers would continue to arrive until nearly 9 PM, when it became too dark to see. Only then would I finally have supper, catch some sleep, and wake up at 5 AM the next morning to repeat the entire process. It was the most arduous work I have ever experienced in my life, but it provided me with invaluable lessons, such as the fact that fatigue doesn't have to be a stopping point.

In America in 2024, almost all of this kind of work is performed by immigrant labor, typically individuals of Latino descent. The days of hiring middle-class and working-class American kids to work in farm fields are long gone. I can't help but believe that it would benefit people to experience this type of work. It certainly helped me appreciate the nature of physical labor. When I hear one of my fellow 21st-century "keyboard warriors" talk about "working their ass off," I wish I could hand them a burlap sack and place them amidst two rows of corn for a few hours, so they could truly understand the difference between white-collar stress and blue-collar stress.

The next time you enjoy some delicious, farm-fresh produce, take a moment to recognize and appreciate the individuals whose labor brought it to your plate.


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