The Dirtiest Job

One of the fun TV shows of the previous decade was “Dirty Jobs,” in which host Mike Rowe identified some of the most unappealing, but essential, tasks in the country, and then – with the supervision of experts – did them. 

Just a few of those jobs included animal rendering, artificial insemination, diaper cleaning, goose down plucking, mattress recycling and spider venom milking.

Lurking among these innocent looking stalks are the weeds, bugs, pollen and sweat that make picking sweet corn the dirtiest job I’ve ever had. Photo by Katherine Volkovski on Unsplash

Growing up in farm country Wisconsin I was tasked with many dirty jobs: dairy barn gutter scooping, manure spreading, horse stall cleaning, pig feeding, garbage dumping, stone picking, chicken plucking, etc. But my dirtiest job ever was picking sweet corn for the local canning company. 

I’d driven a large combine to harvest peas before, and that was dirty enough. Long tines on my combine scooping tangled vines into the massive drum on wheels behind me. Inside the drum was a slightly smaller drum made of nylon screens, which turned one direction. A wooden beam with paddles rotating quickly in the opposite direction beat the vines senseless.

The brutal action burst the pea pods and the fresh, round peas tossed about in the melee until they fell through the screens and onto a conveyer belt, on which they were carried up to a bucket, while the vine trash fell out the back end.

But nothing was dirtier than picking sweet corn. 

A corn picker works like this: Metal “heads” alongside the tractor work like funnels to guide rows of tall standing corn stalks between two ribbed, solid steel rods that spin rapidly toward each other. The ribs interlock like gears so there is no space between them and they grab the tough stalks and yank them down through a narrow opening, where another band of steel – called a cutting bar – snaps off the cobs. 

The cobs drop into an auger that funnels them up the elevator behind the tractor which drops them into a two-wheeled wagon. That wagon rises on hydraulic hoists so it can dump four tons of corn into a waiting truck. That’s 8,000 pounds of corn.

Because the elevator would swing away from the wagon when we turned around at the end of the field, we’d have to shut it off until the wagon was directly behind us again when we completed the turn. Sometimes, we’d forget to turn the elevator back on, but the augers kept turning and would grind the corn that backed up into mush. We called that “creaming a batch.”

We harvested the corn at its prime, those hours the kernels are tender and sweet, and when fuzzy tassels at the top of the stalks are laden with pollen. These tassels sit atop the stalks, 7-8 feet above the ground, the same height as my head when I’m driving through the rows, jerking the stalks violently down through the rollers, shaking the pollen laden tassels over my head – all day long.  This is July and August in Wisconsin, the weeks of heat and humidity. 

So, the pollen is sticking to my sweaty skin, along with a colony of tiny bugs, no bigger than a speck of dirt, which bite like scorpions. If I was lucky enough to spot them before they bit, I’d just squish them in my shirt or pinch them between my fingers. 

Sometimes, during a dry season, the corn cobs would be low on the stalk and we’d have to lower the picker head to capture them. But that put the rollers low enough to accidently wind tightly around weeds and grind to a halt. 

That’s when I’d have to raise the heads and crawl on my back under them, dirt sliding under my collar, to slash at the weeds with my pocket knife, disentangling them from the rollers, while bugs crawled up my shirt and corn juice dripped in my eyes.

But hey, what wouldn’t you do for a buck eighty an hour?

The last thing we did each night before leaving the fields as darkness descended, was to pick our buckets full so at 6 a.m. the following morning, the trucks would have a ready load to cart to the canning factory. 

So, each morning we’d dump our 8,000 pounds of corn into a truck, steam rising with the pungent scent of boiled corn left too long in the pot so the marketing men could advertise “fresh from the field to your table.”

A word of advice learned at the 6 a.m. classroom: never buy creamed corn.  

This is “field corn” being picked. Sweet corn stalks are not dried out when picked and the heat and pollen is much heavier.

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