Not so easy, is it Iowa?
You might get your own little pre-election election where all the candidates tell you how great you are, and you might have the Field of Dreams movie set there in eastern Iowa, but this year you’ve been humbled.
OK, you need background. Everyone knows that Iowans grow a lot of corn. Hell, they can’t stop talking about it. Every Iowa postcard has corn on it. Every Iowa TV commercial is filmed in a cornfield, even if the product is, say, a toilet bowl scrubber. Iowa doesn’t have the death penalty anymore, but when it did back in the early 1900s, it had no last meal rights. The executioner simply said, “One ear or two?” and everyone including the man about to be hanged had a good chuckle because what Iowan would turn down two ears of corn? No one. Iowans love a good chuckle. (Don’t even bother looking that up. A story like that is too accurate for the Internet.)
Iowans love to slap you in the face with their fun corn facts, like did you know Iowa produces three times as much corn as Mexico? The Old one. The entire country. Now that sounds impressive, but in defense of Mexico, it has beaches. If Iowans had beaches, they’d probably spend less time farming. Maybe. Maybe they’d just grow corn right up to the water. I don’t know. I do know that it wasn’t always like this. The Iowa corn craze all started in the great chicken shortage of 1892. I know you’ve heard the tale a thousand times, but humor me. That year there were so few eggs that when Easter came, Iowa parents had nothing to decorate and hide. What they did have was extra corn. Why? Because there were no chickens to feed. Try to keep up. So they scattered kernels around and the kids ran about trying to fill their Easter baskets. (“Ran about.” That’s how they talked in 1892.)
What happened in that fateful spring was a real life Jack and the Bean Stalk tale. Corn grew everywhere. Apparently those Iowa kids weren’t much for searchin’, ‘cause corn grew in yards and parks and gardens and sand boxes, out of the dirt in children’s pockets and the earwax of old men. It grew in railroad stations and in front of saloons where people could no longer tie up their horses and up through living room dirt floors as people slept. It grew right through the floorboards of banks and the tellers had to push the stalks and leaves aside to get money out of the registers. The kernels would fall into the coin slots and make it tough to make change. That’s why to this day corn is known as a ‘cash crop.’ Absolutely true. Not at all a completely ridiculous and made up nonsense.
Iowans found out what Iowans have known since that day. Their dirt is black magic. It is potting soil that has been pre-fertilized with human growth hormone. Lance Armstrong didn’t have to dope. He could have rubbed Iowa dirt on his hamstrings. The corn there doesn’t even require water, but the clouds rain anyway. Show-offs. How easy is Iowa farming? Here is how corn is planted in Iowa: each family sends its 9th through 13th oldest sons out with a knapsack of corn seed. They fling handfuls around as they meander through the fields, tossing it behind barns, between trees, side to side, to-and-fro, fro-and-to, some whipping handfuls at each other, some carelessly letting it dribble onto the ground as they talk about girls and cars and how to get cars that get girls.
And then all that Iowa corn comes up in perfectly straight, perfectly tall, perfectly perfect rows that look like a painting through the window of your Corolla. Like Martha Stewart encouraged every plant in her low, soft monotone and then hired Bob Villa to trim them with scissors. Every acre would be a state record anywhere else, but it’s hard to impress Iowans. Oh, you averaged 350 bushels per acre this year? Oh congrats, our nanny did that on the roof of her condo in downtown Des Moines.
To keep it interesting, the Iowa governor pairs up farms by drawing names out of a hat and whichever has the highest yield gets to keep the other family’s 9th son. Crazy tradition, but I guess it keeps things interesting. I’m completely joking. It’s the 11th son. Who would risk a top-10 child like that? Not an Iowan.
You may have guessed, even if you do not keep up with such things, that corn is grown in a few places besides Iowa, including here in southwest Kansas. We are in harvest now, my first in so many years I’d forgotten how quickly it goes from jubilation to wondering if you could accidentally burn a few fields right into the God-forsaken earth and get this over by dinner. I mean supper. I’m still re-acclimating to Midwestern lingo. Today is Day 48, I think, of Harvest 2012. Although now it’s difficult to remember in what hour or date or field this all began. In that time, we’ve had maybe five days off. One week we worked 92 hours. That’s not an exaggeration. We have time cards. OK, I don’t have a time card, but the other guys do.
Corn does not grow easily here. What am I saying? People don’t grow easily here. Remember the Dust Bowl? Of course not. Well it’s in history books and it happened here. The ground is like brown cement, except for the huge sandy areas where they could have filmed Lawrence of Arabia. One year the wind drifted sand so deep across my parents back yard they had it bulldozed. A breeze is 25-30 miles an hour with a nice gritty flavor. In the winter, southwest Kansas get sheets of ice. In the summer, any or every day could be 100 degrees. This is where tornadoes visit; hail explodes against the ground as if thrown by Hell’s angels. Even trees don’t want to live here. Sinbad used to have this great little bit where he claimed birds in Kansas get tired and fall out of the sky because there was nowhere to land. Maybe it wasn’t a bit at all.
To grow corn, farmers drill water wells 600 feet down and pump water day after day, month after month. When they try to grow corn the way they do in Iowa, the ground growls, spits out the seeds and the wind throws them at their houses. They fertilize to bribe it out of the ground and spray the little corn plants to beat back the angry mob of weeds and then they hire a pilot to bomb the bugs with super repellent. Then maybe they fertilize again. Probably spray again. And they don’t wish for rain, because that would be foolish and selfish. They are thankful if a little accidentally slips out of a cloud on a deliver to somewhere else. This year, rain didn’t slip out anywhere. Much of the U.S. and North America was so dry historians were having trouble finding a year that compared. The Dust Bowl was mentioned a lot on news networks. Places in Iowa and Illinois and Indiana where it always rains, waited and waited and waited for water that never came.
Out here in southwest Kansas we might not have even known about the drought if it hadn’t been national news. It felt like old times. We pulled a damp rabbit out of a dry hat again. A lot of it wouldn’t win a fair ribbon, but we are still harvesting beautiful corn. The beauty being that it happened at all, that all those hours end in something tangible, yellow kernels you can hold. And more importantly, trade for clothes and food and iPads. What a life. Imagine if your accountant salary was determined by rainfall and bugs. We have picked another war with Mother Nature and wrestled her to a draw. I’m being dramatic, but we are nearing the end of a marathon and I’m tired. You know I’m not a real farmer because I’m even admitting that. But to me, corn harvest feels like serious work, even though I know those massive combines are grinding the kernels off the cob and a cart is carrying it to the trucks and the trucks are driving it to the farm and augers are dropping it into bins, just being involved in such a physical accomplishment makes it feel rugged.
Don’t worry, I have not lost all perspective. I know this is not hard labor. I know about single moms who clean motels. I know the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic at five miles an hour while eating old horses. I know children get leukemia. I know people have died slowly from shotgun blasts to the guts. I know that men worked most of their lives heaving stones to the Great Pyramid of Giza and then were crushed to death on their last day of work. I know about Chicago Cubs fans. I know retired Japanese engineers volunteered to work in a leaking nuclear plant to save young people. I know soldiers do second and third tours in the Middle East and I know about roadside bombs that steal arms and legs. I know settlers crossing the plains in wagons became so weary and desperate they decided to live in Oklahoma. I know about unsafe mines in Chile. I know factories in Cambodia probably aren’t even up to Cambodian code. I know about child trafficking, which has to be awful because kids are just the worst. They ask questions. They’re loud. They’re all over the place. The logistics of something like that has to be a nightmare.
I know about Mike Rowe and his Dirty Jobs on Discovery Channel and I know that corn harvest would not even be in the discussion for an episode. The Dirty Jobs photographers have tougher jobs than this, probably. Probably Mike Rowe’s personal assistant, if he has one, is working harder than this. I know about Jesus, and even if you’re not a person who takes much away from Biblical stories, keep in mind there were two law-breakers killed with him. That’s three men. If it happened to the King of the Jews as well as common thieves, then it happened regularly. Crucifixion, I mean. It was a thing.
My overall simple point, which has now gone completely off the rails because of that Jesus reference, is that people throughout humanity have lived and worked and died in horrific ways and I watch baseball games on my phone. Sometimes I get annoyed by the home team’s announcers and switch to the other team’s station. On my phone. I am spoiled. I get it.
But you take little wins where you can and if we ever get through this harvest, I’m considering it a victory. Iowa, it was a tough year but you will back to your old glory soon. My apologies for a little teasing. I’d still like to drive through your state once in a while and enjoy the view. I will bring the corn this year. Will it be one ear or two?