How a young kid picking sweet corn on his Grandpa’s farm in Ohio ended up making an organic sojourn across two continents

By Jason Witmer

Editor’s NOTE:
Jason Witmer left the U.S. on January 8, 2003, beginning a year-long odyssey, visiting farms across Asia and Europe. He organized this trip with the help of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF, at www.wwoof.org).

For more on the genesis of this column, and our ambitions for reporting on sustainable and organic agriculture around the world, see Greg Bowman’s introductory piece.

For Jason’s first international report, on Thailand, click here.

When 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 fun.”

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 planning.

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’ motorcycle-adventure-out-West-in-the-70's story.

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.