Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sweetcorn harvest

I visited my 84 year old neighbor, Brother, at his job today. He officially retired from the grocery/tire patching/fried bologna sandwich-making business a few years ago and, ever since, has helped out his farmer friend with the annual sweetcorn harvest. Brother gave me vague directions to the sweetcorn stand. He gives directions based on field ownership and buildings, which are few and far between down here. Today he could have told me to follow the stray ears of corn that littered the county road. I must have passed 50 perfectly good ears of corn lying in the asphalt; I swerved to miss them in the vague hope that someone would pick them up.

Yesterday, as I was working a knot out of his shoulder, Brother described his job to me. He sits under a tent all day putting stray ears of corn into plastic burlap sacks, filling each sack to make a bushel. He pulls in to the tent at 6 a.m., parks next to a retired school bus emblazoned with "Hernandez Harvesters," and gets to work. He described every aspect of the sweetcorn harvest operation, from the time the trucks come in until another truck hauls off pallets of corn. Unlike most elementary schools, mine didn't send us on fieldtrips to factories, dairies or agricultural processing stations. So, I had to see the sweetcorn operation. I brought Brother a sandwich to justify my gawking.

Huge trucks arrive all day with literally tons of corn and plant debris, backing up to a 1950s blue clapboard building filled with conveyor belts. They dump their load into a holding area. Fieldhands shuttle the corn onto two separate conveyor belts which move quickly past about 30 immigrant laborers who pick out the good ears of corn, packing them into crates. As soon as one worker fills a crate, a girl walks by and gives him a small numbered poker chip to keep track of how many crates he packed. The bad ears and chaff continue on the conveyor belt where they are shunted into the back of another truck, headed for a cattle farmer or the dump. Brother's job is to cull out good ears that were initially passed over by the conveyor belt and pack them into his burlap sacks. Each bushel of corn (roughly 40-60 ears)sells for 8$. Local grocery stores sell 4 ears of sweetcorn for a dollar.

Ears of corn that are rejected by Brother have moldy tassels, are shorter than other ears or have had less water and haven't fully matured. Of course, the rejected ears are fine to eat. The rejected ears are the ones that I grew up eating, the ones that end up in grocery stores throughout the South or as hog food. Brother hates throwing good corn away. I hated to see good corn getting tossed, too, and I didn't grow up in the Depression.

Huge trucks pull up to the clapboard building to buy bushels for local resale and pallets for widespread distribution. When Brother included in his directions the line: "just look for all the truck traffic," he wasn't kidding. In my idle amblings through the sweetcorn harvest operation, I almost got creamed about four times by trucks moving corn.

Over lunch, Brother complained to me that the immigrant workers work a lot harder than the local hires. The locals work, slowly, he says, for a day and then don't show up the next. They complain about the heat. They complain about the hours. Brother doesn't complain about anything but the laziness evident in young, local workers. Working in any kind of monotonous job can't be easy. Doug still has nightmares about working the berry retorts at Oregon Fruit Products; his nightmares are like everyone else's work-related nightmares (required steps are forgotten, he shows up late and has to work on the belt, he forgot to set the timer and cans explode). He worked at OFP during his summers off from Reed almost 20 years ago. And he still has nightmares about it.

After I found Brother's dog, Tip, cooling off under one of the trucks, I made my last round of the operation, looking with awe at the methodical harvest techniques and functioning machinery that has run every year since about 1951. Seeing all of that non-stop hard work made me feel lazy and inefficient. Brother went back to work culling corn. Tip went back to sleep under the truck. And I went home, dodging stray corn in the road, intending to work a token 4 hours on my day off.

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