Saturday, October 4, 2008

Corn Harvest

It all comes down to today. Back in May, when the seeds were placed into the ground, it was today the farmer was looking forward to. Throughout the summer, when the soil was first too wet and then suddenly turned too dry, it was today that was on his mind. And two weeks ago, when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through the Miami Valley, it was today he thought about. What would there be to harvest; what would there be to show for all the work?

So this morning, when I heard the harvester fire up nearby, I knew today was that day so long dreamed of, so long worried about. I first saw the machine coming east in the field to our south, bringing a load to the bins that sat along S. Clayton Road.

Here D.R. Coffman has finished a row and heads to dump the corn into a waiting hopper, where his wife waits eagerly.

As he pulls through the last of the row, you can watch the entire stalks quake and fall to the metal. How amazing to design a machine that knows the difference between corn, leaves and stalk. The trick is, I understand, the different weights of each and the ability to sort while still in motion. The waste is blown back onto the soil, the golden corn carried until the harvester can hold no more.

Here, Coffman unloads what he's gathered in a pass or two. Can you imagine the awe a farmer from the 19th century would feel upon seeing such a behemoth? How much time did they spend manually cutting the corn, taking the ears, stacking the stalks? It was a beautiful sight, indeed, but the work expended must have been enormous.

Now, of course, we have $250,000 machines and expensive fuel to consider but the efficiency of the operation is enormous. According to Iowa State University, the yield per acre of corn for the United States was 152.8 bushels per acre in 2007. Go back even to 2000 and the number was 136.9.

But drop back further still - to 1960 - and U.S. farmers managed only 54.7 bushels per acre. The yield has nearly tripled in less than 50 years.

Right now, 160 bushels per acre is achievable.

And so the corn flows and fills the waiting bins and D.R.'s wife might pull them to the grain bins while he continues to harvest. This is a two person operation, accomplishing more in minutes than a family might have traditionally managed in a day.

The low corn seems to be picked up by the harvester easily. I thought that the stalks, felled by the hurricane, might spell the end of the crop. Not so. It seems to be about easily collected as any year. D.R. has just adjusted for the height of the corn - low indeed! - but it seems no problem for modern technology.

The end result is the ear shown below. I walked behind Pinehaven while D.R. was still working the south field, and found the husks full and golden. The entire season comes down to those rows of kernels. And it all comes down to today.