News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The corn picking chronicles: how farms became factories

I am so old I remember when this was how most corn was picked.  I had many uncles who were farmers in Illinois.  My dad was raised on a farm.  The farm I remember best was the one on which my maternal grandmother lived with two of her bachelor sons.  They were World War I veterans who bought a farm with veteran loan benefits.  They scrimped and struggled throughout the depression years to pay off the farm.  During World War II, the car they chauffered my grandmother around in had to have the doors held shut with baling wire. Their farm truck was a 1928 Chevrolet that they kept running.  Just before the war started, they bought a Farmall H tractor which, along with draft horses, powered them through the war.

I knew this farm because as my grandmother aged, my mother often went to help her on the farm.  I went with her, and  lived a number of summers on the farm.  In the early years, the horses were an essential part of the logistics of the farm operation.  For picking corn, they would plod along side the corn rows pulling a wagon fitted with a bang board, as pictured above, on one side.  The harvester would snap off the corn ears with a quick jerk and throw the ear into the wagon.  The toss often would be hard enough for the corn ear to hit the bang board and bounce into the wagon.  The harvesters carried corn knives which would be used to cut off ears that didn't snap off easily.   The pace of the horses would be at the speed the person picking the corn could walk along the row and snap off the ears.  The horses could be stopped and started with vocal commands, working as a team with the corn picker.
A corn husker

When a wagon was full, the horses would pull it to a corn crib with the husks still on the corn. Sometimes the corn ears were  shucked before being elevated into the cribs. Sometimes the husking was done as the corn was taken from the crib for use. The husks were removed by a corn husking machine.  Of course, at one time, the husks were removed by hand.  
A double corn crib of the kind on my uncles' farm.  Husking
and shelling was done inside.
This process was long and arduous.  Before mechanical corn pickers, the job of picking corn would last from late September through the fall into winter.  Many farmers hired help, but for many others the corn harvest was largely a family affair with children helping with the picking after school and on weekends.  Corn picking did not develop the co-operative tradition of threshing gangs that the harvest of wheat and oats and other grains did.   The husking bee at
which people ripped the husks off corn during a social occasion was one of the efforts devised to help with a tedious and time-consuming task.

The development of mechanical corn pickers is considered to have had the most dramatic impact on farming.  They provided a massive reduction in the labor needed.  But they were expensive.  During the 1930s when the transition from horse power to tractor power accelerated, farm profits were too slim to enable many farmers to buy mechanical equipment.  And some of the early mechanical pickers which could be pulled by horses or tractors were extremely awkward to operate.  Just before World War II, significant improvements were made in the engineering of corn pickers and the tractor mounted pickers (pictured above) were much easier to operate than previous designs.  However, new problems arose.  The tractor-mounted pickers had a tendency to jam and the newspapers were full of accounts of farmers getting their hands and arms caught in the pickers when trying to clear the jams.

Two of my uncles bought their farms while working as machine shop foremen at the Farmall plant in Rock Island, Ill.  So the family was familiar with International Harvester equipment.  During my freshman year in college, a high school mate started a custom harvesting business.  During the corn picking season that year, I operated an IH tractor-mounted corn picker on the night shift for him.  My uncles had taught me to shut the machine off when it jammed and to clear it with a crow bar and a knife.  My acquaintance with pickers grew, as during college, I had summer jobs at the International Harvester plant that built corn pickers and combines.  When I was released from active duty in the Army, I worked in the office of that plant for a few years.  The community where the IH plants were located was also home to the John Deere headquarters, and J.I. Case had factories there, also.  The development of agricultural equipment was the driving economic force of that community.  After I completed my college degree when I was released from military service, I got a job as farm and business editor of a local newspaper and covered farming and the farm equipment business.

However, there is a tale to tell regarding corn pickers before all that.  I had to drop out of college for a time to work. I had a job on the sports desk of a morning paper.  Because I was not attending college, I lost my deferment and got drafted into the Army.  But while I was working on the paper, a big editorial controversy came up regarding corn pickers.  When someone was injured or killed in a corn picking accident, the newspaper printed detailed stories about the accidents under the assumption that explaining how the accidents occurred was a public service that could show farmers how they could be prevented.  This produced a spate of protests from people who said we were heaping embarrassment on the people who were suffering enough from their injuries.  The paper stopped publishing the accident details.  But this produced another barrage of complaints that we weren't explaining how the accidents happened so they could be avoided.  In the end, the people who said we were adding to the woes of the wounded won out.  The editors said trying to deal with their protests was too disruptive and detrimental to the news operation, so the farm accident reports from that point on did not explain the details of what happened.  Many years later, the farm editor of that paper, who was a close associate of mine, said that decision signaled the time when the reporting of farm news became very limited in community newspapers.  He said the attitude among editors was that if someone was dumb enough to stick his hand in a corn picker, he probably didn't read newspapers anyway.

Those tractor-mounted corn pickers are things of the past.  No American companies make them that I know of, but the service parts are available to keep them running.  You can buy a new one, however, from the huge Chinese retailer Alibaba.  There is little information as to their quality.  While some smaller farmers may still use the tractor-powered pickers, most corn is harvested today with combines that can pick corn from 6 to 18 rows at a pass.  These combines run from a quarter of a million to half a million dollars a piece.   They automatically husk and shell the corn.
John Deere combines cost $380,000 to $480,000

The farm equipment business began by supplying family farmers with tools that could save labor, refine and make agriculture more productive, and eliminate some of the drudgery that made farm kids determined not to farm.  Today a small-scale farmer can't find equipment designed for his kind of operation, except for used machinery.   In the 1960s, John Deere Co. launched an advertising slogan of "The Long Green Line" to designate the history of the machinery it produced.  That history is one of producing equipment designed to help homesteaders establish their operations to the current time of building machines for huge factory-farms which are unaffordable for a family operation.    Mid-sized tractors cost between $25,000 to $50,000.  But tractors for the huge factory farms run up to $475,000.  The cost of machinery and the debt-load to pay for it during a bad crop year can put a farmer out business quickly.  That represents a change in the philosophy of farming.

My uncles who had farms were general farmers.  They rotated crops of corn, oats, hay, and sometimes specialty crops, such as barley, on their fields.  They had a herd of milk cows bred to beef bulls so that they produced both milk and beef.  They raised and fed hogs, and had a flock of chickens which supplied eggs and meat.  They usually planted a couple rows of potatoes on the edge of a corn field, and planted a vegetable garden from which they harvested and preserved enough food to last through the winter.  My bachelor uncles also had apple trees and a grape arbor.  The general farm was an extremely busy and complex operation, but it was geared to a level of self-sufficiency which enabled the farm family to survive the fluctuations of market prices and weather with which a farmer has to contend.  

In contrast, current farming is oriented to specialty agriculture,  Those who grow crops may alternate between corn and soybeans and, decreasingly, wheat.  Pork, beef, and poultry producers center their farms around confinement feeding operations.  Whereas farming was once a way to
Hogs in confinement

 achieve self-sufficiency and independence, today's agriculture is tied to corporate life.  As a consequence, farm equipment is designed to serve the corporate scale of operation, not the family-sized operation.   Tractors are available in many sizes that can be used in smaller operations, but the industry no longer makes attachments geared to support the modest operations. Economy of scale is the ruling principle that establishes the size of farms.

The corporate influence has also shaped the farm programs to push the demand for farms to get bigger.  The Environmental Working Group, which tracks farm subsidies, states:
Despite the rhetoric of "preserving the family farm," the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from federal farm subsidy programs and most of the subsidies go to the largest and most financially secure farm operations. Small commodity farmers qualify for a mere pittance, while producers of meat, fruits, and vegetables are almost completely left out of the subsidy game (i.e. they can sign up for subsidized crop insurance and often receive federal disaster payments).
Abandoned farmstead
The trend for turning agriculture into agribusiness and making rural America a huge factory system has been taking place for many decades.  It has turned once-thriving small towns into ghost communities.  The South Dakota landscape is dotted with abandoned farmsteads and deserted main streets.   A drive through the countryside is a tour of the grave markers of family enterprises that built the state.  But those remnants will eventually be removed to make way for planting as the economy of scale absorbs the land into huge factory fields.
Factory farm landscape, called intensive agriculture


Porter Lansing said...

As a chef it saddens me that the durum wheat crop is disappearing from SD and the Great Plains. It won't grow most places (durum represents only 5% of America's wheat crop) and is used for the world's best pasta and noodles. The small farm absence from federal subsidies is probably to blame.

David Newquist said...

In the early 1990s, 1100 durum wheat growers in North Dakota formed a co-operative to manufacture their wheat into pasta, Dakota Growers Pasta. It was a successful venture, but after about a decade was sold to a Canadian company and became a corporation. It was never made clear why the co-operative venture was given up, but farm co-operatives are notoriously fractious organizations, and I assume its members found it more restful for decisions to be made for them. It fit into the trend for corporate alliances and encouragement to "get big, or get out," which the current Secretary of Agriculture has taken up with a vengeance.

Porter Lansing said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
larry kurtz said...

In South Dakota Republicans enjoy socialized agriculture just as Kentucky Republicans once made bank on socialized tobacco but Kentucky lost that subsidy so industrial cannabis (hemp) makes some sense there. But replacing the ecocidal corn/ethanol subsidy in South Dakota with hemp acres is a bridge too far for Republicans who run for office as earth haters in my home state.

The Chinese Ring-necked Pheasant isn't wildlife but it is a canary in a chemically and genetically engineered corn mine so the pesticide industry that greases Republican politicos don't give a whit about anything but profit. South Dakota's legislature is dominated by Republicans who ignore the effects of the Anthropocene and lobbyists line up to stuff their pockets with cash.

Blend the slaughter of apex predators, the resulting rise of mesopredators, increasing numbers of domestic dogs and cats then stir in a melange of industrial chemicals with climate change and voila: red state collapse on parade! Little wonder over a hundred species in South Dakota alone and a million worldwide are at risk to the Republican Party.

Kill off apex predators like wolves and cougars; spray glyphosate and POEA on everything then wonder why cervids contract a prion contagion like Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

mike from iowa said...

My ex-FIL and I picked ear corn and cribbed it until 2008. It was air dried and then much of it ground for cattle feed. When the remaining corn was shelled we filled the cob shed for starting tank heater fires and the rest were used as a base for outdoor bedding areas for cattle in the Winter. Corn husks and later cornstalk bales added to the pile as the need arose. He owned two New Idea 324 pull behind, 2 row pickers and we picked the crib full (2500 bushels to a side) and many years piled the rest on the ground inside a ring of snow fence.

That was a job I enjoyed immensely, hauling the ears in and filling the crib until daily back aches set in. After that, corn picking was just another chore.

David Newquist said...

An old farm writer colleague of mine responded to this post with an account of how much equipment for smaller operations in northern Illinois was available from dealer-auction houses that specialize in used machines. I noted that one had a number of New Idea 2-row pickers running from $1,900 to $7,500.

One of the last features I wrote as a farm editor was about a man in his 80s who turned his farm over to a son, bought an acreage where he fed a couple of steers for the freezer, and raised a few acres of corn and hay for feed. He was experimenting with how many bushels of corn he could raise with a small utility tractor without using weed killer. He cultivated the corn with a walk-behind tiller, but had a pull-behind picker. He had hit 240 bushels an acre, if I recall right.

Debbo said...

I'm a couple weeks late to this fun post, but glad I found it.

The farm I grew up on in central SD is much like what is described here as a general farm. I'll probably always miss it.

In 1957 my paternal grandfather took a truckload of wheat to the elevator in St. Lawrence and sold it. He drove over to Miller and bought a brand new combine from the Case dealer with the money, all paid for. That combine still sat in a back lot in the weeds, still orange, when the farm was sold and the last of my family moved off in 1985.

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