I wiped my palms on my jeans, tugged at the bill of my baseball hat, and took a deep breath. It was my first time competing in the annual Illinois State Corn Husking Contest at the end of September and I was nervous.
I peered around the tall stalks of corn in my row to get a glance at my competition. There were half a dozen or more competing in my heat, Women Age 21-49. The top two finalists would go on to represent Illinois in the national competition held in Indiana later in the month. The competitors squared off against their rows of corn. Some stretched as we waited for the announcer to start the race.
Ardith Clair, an 80-year-old hand-husker I met last year, had told me she started husking two decades ago because she’s competitive.
“I just want to win,” I remembered her saying.
I’m the same way. Plus, the other farm reporters at Harvest Public Media had a bet on this race. The highest estimate, waged by our Nebraska-based Grant Gerlock, was that I could pick 160 ears of corn. Despite placing my own bet at a modest 60 ears (they trusted me to not throw the race), I was determined to blow my colleagues’ expectations out of the water. I had to beat 160, for the sake of my competitive soul and Ardith’s stopwatch. I had 20 minutes to strip the husks off the corn and chuck the naked ears over my shoulder into a steel-wheeled wagon pulled by a tractor at my back. I smiled at the tractor driver and asked for tips.
“Shuck as many as you can, as clean as you can,” he said. “Just yank ‘em off and throw.”
Through his bullhorn, the announcer began counting down.
“Ten, nine, eight...” he bellowed.
I squatted, wrapped my palms around the ear closest to me. It was hefty. The husk was rough to the touch.
“Bleeeeeep!” the air horn cried out.
I dug my fingernails into the husk’s papery fiber, tore it apart, and decapitated my first ear. Wholly unlike a pro, who would blindly vault the corn over her shoulder, I couldn’t help but turn around to gently toss it into the wagon, not wanting to miss my target.
One down. At least 160 more to go.
Corn husking contests like this one, held at Harlan Jacobson’s farm in Roseville, Illinois, are a harvest time fixture in rural towns across the Midwest.
Nowadays, farmers head to their fields in big machines called combines, which typically mow down 12 rows of corn at once. But farmers used to harvest corn by picking it from the stalks with their bare hands.
Whole families would head out at dawn to walk the rows with their horse drawn wagons. They’d try to pick fifty bushels, 2,800 pounds of corn, before lunch and another fifty bushels in the afternoon, often harvesting until dark. Farm kids regularly missed weeks, even months, of school to help.
“We were lucky to get done by Thanksgiving,” Ardith had recalled. “Sometimes we’d still be picking with snow on the ground.”
Ardith, who died this spring from a heart attack during knee surgery, grew up in Mendon, Illinois. Her family moved west from the east coast in 1853 to farm. Until her death, she lived in the same house, built by her great uncle. If you closed the bathroom door, she said, it was like going back to the 19th century.
“There was no lumber sawmill in Illinois then,” she had said. “They sawed the lumber in St. Louis, floated it up on the Mississippi, and the farmers went down in horse drawn wagons to pick it up and bring it back to build the barn. That’s the only way they could do it.”
When I met Ardith a year ago at the 2014 competition, it was only a week after relocating my life to western Illinois to work as a farm reporter for Harvest. While I’m no rookie at talking with strangers, there was something unnerving about the older woman in the purple t-shirt, her grey curls tucked under a blank beige ball cap. She had a settled look, like she’d made up her mind a long time ago about who she was and, in the years since, had rarely questioned her decision.
Ardith’s father had died when she was young and it was up to her and her mother to keep their 80-acre farm afloat. They had horses to help in the field and sold hogs at market. When her mother died, Ardith lived alone on the land.
As I moved down my row, splotches of red corn rash began bubbling up on my skin. I should have worn long sleeves, I thought. But it felt good. I was outside, under a blue sky with golden fibers stuck in my hair. I picked up my pace, tugging at the stalk in front of me and yanking off the corn.
As the last 30 seconds of my debut performance ticked away, I could feel the sweat stinging my eyes and my arms growing heavy. The announcer again blew his air horn and the judge assigned to my row hollered, “time!”
A friend watching me cheered. Someone patted me on the back. I turned towards my wagon, dragged myself on board, and began counting my crop.
216 ears. I beat the bet.
But, I did not win. In fact, I came in second to last in my heat, though my ears were meticulously clean, free from stray pieces of husk and strands of corn silk.
Sitting back in the wagon, I thought about how tickled Ardith would have been to see me compete. I would have liked to tell her in the year since moving to farm country, I’ve grown a big garden, taught myself to can green beans, and now, harvested corn by hand.