I was five years-old my dad paid me a penny for every ear
of sweet corn that I wrestled out of the ten acres of dew
dripping tree-stalks that he had planted on his father’s
farm in Ohio.
I remember him waking me before the August sun had decided
if it was going to roll out of bed itself. After stretching
and jumping into tiny blue jean overalls, I would prance outside
and leap onto the icy vinyl seats of our orange Ford pick-up
truck. Dad would start the engine and we'd drive down the
gravel road to Grandpa’s farm.
Together we slogged through mucky fields, yanked ears off
stalks, and threw the corn onto the rusted bed of the truck.
By the time I had made a quarter I had usually shrieked for
help three times upon getting lost in the leafy sweet corn
jungle. At a half dollar, the sun was rubbing its eyes and
drying our soggy flannel shirts, which soon became soaked
again with sweat.
By high school, my dad had given up small time farming and
I was picking sweet corn on my grandpa’s larger operation
for $6.50 an hour. My uncle, cousins, and I were now pelting
a yellow conveyer belt with cobs that it took to the wagon,
where two others packed them into white five-dozen bags.
The picking-tossing rhythm offered little excitement, and
required no creativity, so we improvised. Daily diversions
included wrestling matches on muck ground, broken cob throwing
contests, and jumps from a moving wagon to stationary hay
bales. Brainstorms for the year’s “corn shirt”
slogan and shouts of plans for future adventures never ceased.
For years I dreamed of one day helping to run the sweet corn
business. What could be better than the visceral satisfaction
I felt after a day of working alongside relatives in the lush
corn fields of the family farm?
Eventually, however, the picturesque agricultural landscape
began to lose some of its luster. I became aware of the headaches
involved in dealing with droughts, weeds, corn bores, aphids,
flocks of birds, and picky produce stores.
More importantly, I began to notice the ugly chemicals used
to control some of these headaches. I watched apprehensively
and disapprovingly as sprayers doused the fields next to us
with pesticides that the wind blew our way. I questioned the
fertilizers Grandpa used to increase production. And I cringed
when I heard of the acres of forest that he had cut down so
that he could plant more sweet corn.
Looking for alternatives, I began browsing the “green”
section of the local library and enrolled in several ecology
courses when I went to college. Words such as “sustainable,”
“organic,” and “permaculture” began
to capture my imagination.
Once I even asked Grandpa what he thought of growing organic
sweet corn. “I used to farm that way when I was a kid,”
he grunted politely. “I weeded with a hoe and shook
bugs off plants with my hands from sunrise to sunset. It wasn’t
To grandpa’s generation, pesticides, herbicides, and
fertilizers were modern miracles. I saw things differently
but, being a teenage corn picker, didn’t have much clout.
So I added some of the words I had learned to our daily ramblings
and kept picking. Little did I know, the corn patch would
soon meld these words into our steady stream of adventure
The summer before my senior year of college, my brother,
cousin, and I began to discuss ideas for an ultimate trip.
Initially, we saw it as achieving two goals. 1) It would serve
as granddaddy to our previous week-long frolics in the mountains,
rivers, and beaches of the Eastern U.S. and 2) it would provide
us with ammunition with which to combat my dad and uncles’
Ideas abounded. Should we sail to the Bahamas? Bike across
the U.S.? Swim to Australia? These corn patch conversations
went on for weeks until the fateful morning when my cousin
Derek began yapping about something called “WWOOF.”
Skeptical at first, we listened as he told us that the acronym
stood for "World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.”
It was an organization to unite travelers who wanted to work
on farms to farms all over the world that needed workers.
Sweltering steam rising from the stalks and the tedium of
labor combined on that day to create a delirium under which
the idea of romping around the world for six months seemed
perfectly normal. After weeks of jabbering, we narrowed our
corn patch dreams to a trip that would take us to rice paddies
in Thailand, water buffaloes in India, and the golden rolling
fields of Spain.
Our goal has now become to work on and learn from organic
farms as we travel. We don’t want to just stroll through
Southeast Asia, India and Europe as tourists; we want to put
our palms in the dirt, to wake up with the sun and feel it
on our backs all day long. We want to discuss the weather
with farmers, to learn about how they live, and to understand
their reasons for farming organically. Chances are, we won’t
find many sweet corn farms, but we want to be inspired and
to learn new methods of farming. And we want to bring stories
of what we learn back to others.
Once again I am going to be jumping into blue jean overalls
with the excitement and curiosity of a five-year old. The
family sweet corn farm has sown itself deep within me and,
in a sense, produced the seeds of a pilgrimage for its enlightenment.