Plant It and They Will Husk
By Lois Hoffman
Last year I attended my first ever Indiana State Corn Husking Competition near Bremen, Indiana. I was curious because I had never heard of a husking contest before. I remember doing it as a kid out of necessity to get the fields “opened up” so Dad could get his corn picker in the field without knocking any corn down. I wanted to try it again, if for nothing more than the memories. It was fun. I met a lot of nice people. I liked the competition. I was hooked. I went back this year.
Corn husking is the oldest and the most original method of harvesting a field of corn. Initially, farmers would husk the corn by hand and toss it into a horse-drawn wagon that would follow them down the rows.
Essentially what the contest is, in a nutshell, is a field of corn is divided into lands and competitors choose which lands and rows they want to shuck. When it is their turn, they have so many minutes for their class (usually 20 minutes except youngsters and golden-agers are 10 minutes each) to see how many pounds of corn they can husk. A “judge” and a “gleaner” follow each contestant. The judge times the competitor and the gleaner carries a bag and picks up all corn that the contestant misses on his/her assigned row and any that is laying on the ground or misses the wagon.
After each husker is finished, his or her corn is weighed. Then a 20-pound random sampling is taken. Husks that are attached to the ears in this sample are removed and weighed. One ounce of husks are allowed with no deduction. After that, 1 percent of the gross weight is deducted for each 1/4 ounce of husks up to 2 ounces and any amount over 2 ounces, 3 percent of the gross weight is deducted for each 1/4 ounce. On top of that, 3 pounds of corn is deducted for every pound of gleanings. This competition is pretty serious business!
So, why do people come year after year to compete? The history, the heritage, the competition, and the fun. That’s what draws me. I asked Clay Geyer, the president of the Indiana Corn Husking Association, the same question. Like me, he started husking out of necessity at a young age on the family farm. “We always husked two rows around every field, and sometimes through the middle, plus we husked corners to allow us to turn on end rows with our New Idea 324 picker with a 12-roll husking bed. Grandpa would never turn a corner without husking corn by hand. Some farmers just “round” the corner and don’t look back, but I learned early on that I’d rather husk the ear of corn from a standing stalk rather than dig it out of the soil with a screw driver!”
Clay has been involved with the Indiana Corn Husking Association since 2008. The first contest that he ever attended was on Ralph Murphy’s farm in Wabash, Indiana. Husker Dave Williams and his family from Middlebury motivated him to enter instead of just watching. Yep, he was hooked. This is the fourth year that the Geyer Farm has hosted the state competition. Clay admits that, “It’s unbelievable the amount of preparation and time that goes into planning an event like this. It is a challenge, but well worth it! I enjoy seeing families, friends, local FFA and other organizations and businesses come together so we can enjoy a piece of history.”
I saw “kids” from 2 to 92 there, and I wondered what motivated them to come out to this event. Richard Hinton is a pro if there ever was one. Coming up from Warren, Indiana, this is his 18th year of husking. He won both the state and national titles in the Men’s Open Class in 2016 and has 16 years of second place trophies. He husks because it is fun, he enjoys people, and some of these folks he only sees once a year at this event. “Some say I ought to retire and others say that I should defend my title after last year,” he ponders.
This year was the sixth go-around for Jeremy Kane, who was the first husker of the day. His motivation is to help preserve the history. There definitely is an advantage to what rows a husker chooses and what time of day they husk. Rows that have ears hanging pretty much uniformly, instead of some being at the bottom of the stalk and others being at the top, allow the husker to grab the ears quicker. Also, the later in the day usually means that the husks are dryer and will come off the ear easier. I asked Jeremy what his strategy was for husking. He said that he tries “to be as consistent as possible, not drop any and not leave any husk.” Going from experience, I can safely say that it takes a lot of self-discipline to stay focused.
Mark Payne is the vice-president of the corn husking association. He has a farm, still picks ear corn, and still husks by hand to open up his fields. Need I say more why he came?! Ron Wolfin is a first-time husker and is here because he likes horses. He really likes them. As part of the Michigan Trail Riders, he rode 250 miles round trip over 22 days from Oscoda, Michigan, to Empire, Michigan.
Peggy Smith has been husking almost 10 years. She, her husband Larry, and three sons bring a team of draft horses that pulls one of the wagons. The whole family is huskers even though all of them are not always there every year. Peggy husks “because I have to keep up with the men in my life!”
Another reason people come out is to see the horses. Draft horses are truly magnificent animals. Darrell Miller, from New Paris, Indiana, can attest to that. His family raises Belgians for sale. At last count, his “Turkey Creek Belgians” totaled 56, two of which he had pulling a wagon at the corn husking. He loves going to shows and other events with the horses. Just getting back from the National Draft Horse Show in Utah, he was just as glad to be at the Indiana Corn Husking Contest. “Anything to be with the horses!” he adds.
Heidi Sorkoran, like me, is a fellow Michigander who was a newbie to corn husking. She has been around a farm her whole life and loves that way of life. Her Dad, Gary Gushwa, saw this event advertised and asked her to try it. “I’m game for anything!” she remarks. Coming in third in the Young Women’s Class isn’t too bad for a first-timer!
Marshall Finke is an “old pro” at this, even though he is only 12 years old. His Grandpa Jerry also brings a team of horses to the event and inspired his grandson. “I like to hang out with Grandpa,” Marshall smiles. “Grandpa told me about it and I like to compete. It’s real interesting!”
It’s funny how things that come around, go around. Last year I met a husker named Robert Hamilton who also had an interesting story to tell. He and his family grow and mill their own brand of specialty corn meal. This year I had the privilege of meeting his two granddaughters who were trying their hand at husking. Melanie Gebhart competed in the Young Girls 14 and Under and this was her first time husking. “Grandpa grows corn and I like to hang out with Grandpa so I decided to try it,” she says.
This year was Melanie’s sister Sophia’s second year of husking, with her competing in the Youth Girls 15 to 20. Her reasoning for coming is “Grandpa enjoys it, he has so many stories. It is a great time to bond with him.” Apparently, husking will be a family thing for them. Both girls came in second in their class! This is yet another reason I go; stories like this warm my heart.
Others come for other reasons. Jim Greer volunteered to drive people around in a Gator. Mark and Linda Johnston came to watch and to reminisce about old times. For others, the memories were not so good. Morton Harrington was also only an onlooker. “Husking corn was the reason that I joined up for the war. It was a real muddy year and I figured I was better off joining the service than picking ear corn out of the mud!”
Clay echoes my sentiments about the corn husking contest. “I believe it’s not only important to keep the history of corn husking alive, but to also teach all ages how corn was once harvested prior to machine. I would like to see our organization grow. I know that there are residents of Indiana that have had parents or grandparents who have husked corn on their farm or in the contest. I encourage them to come on out and carry on the traditions of prior generations.”
This whole contest sounds simple but, as Clay knows firsthand, there is so much that goes into making this possible. He has met with businesses, made new friendships; promoted the contest throughout the year at fairs, contests and shows; and met with farmers across the state of Indiana to help get a corn crop planted, managed and ready for contest day.
It’s not about the winning, it’s not even all about the corn husking. Curiosity brought me here last year, the sense of family, friends, fun and memories brought me back this year and being part of something down-to-earth and real will bring me back again and again. Husk on!
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