USDA officials are predicting U.S. farmers will plant 89 million acres of corn and 77 million acres of soybeans in the 2010 crop year. If realized, that would be the largest corn harvest in the nation's history and the second largest soybean crop on record. The bin-busting harvest will be completed using some of the largest and most efficient machinery ever built.
But once in a great while on a blue-sky harvest day, an older farmer will think back about a time when it was all done by hand and smile. While no one is proposing a return to those days, there are farmers who dream about taking one more walk beside the wagon so they can toss a few ears against the bang-board and sit down to a large post-harvest meal. And, as David Miller discovered last fall, sometimes you get to live out your dreams.
The sound of tractors and combines provides a steady familiar beat that accompanies harvest across rural America. Long gone are the jingle of horse tack and the thump of unshelled corn against a bang-board.
For Howard Lord, an 85 year-old retired Methodist minister and third generation Iowa farmer, these were sights and sounds he wanted to hear one more time.
Howard Lord, Montezuma "When I was about 18, my father's cousin picked corn when he was 85 years old, he picked with his son. I knew he was picking corn. He was 85 years old and he was out there picking. I thought if I ever live to be 85 that would be pretty nice."
He mentioned this thought in passing to family members and the idea took on a life of its own. His impromptu comment led to a Saturday afternoon gathering of his family and friends ready to honor his 85th birthday wish.
Russell Lord, the oldest of Lord's four children, was among the party organizers.
Russell Lord, Billings, Montana: "...it's pretty exciting because I can remember hearing stories about them doing this and we would spend time on my granddad's farm every summer when I was growing up as a kid. So, it's kind of the first time I've been able to see the instantiation of the actual event take place after hearing about it all that time."
For the 65 people in attendance in the field near Milo, Iowa, things were a bit out of order for a traditional harvest day. Supper was first.
Then, joined by his brother Charlie, his four children, and some of his 14 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren, along with several family friends, Lord set to work. Everyone who wanted a chance to harvest the old fashioned way was encouraged to participate.
(Granddaughter Ashley Augustine: "Grandpa, show me how")
Howard Lord, Montezuma: "Probably by the time I was 10 years old I started picking by hand and then I had my two brothers. We'd pick three rows. The oldest brother in the 3rd row, and my middle brother in the 2nd row, and me between those two and the wagon. And instead of throwing in the wagon they were just throwing the ears past me."
In those days, the rows were 42 inches apart and the corn was planted in three stalk groups making the field look like a checkerboard from the air. A typical Iowa yield was between 60 and 80 bushels per acre and the corn generally stayed on the cob until it was needed for animal feed. At the height of his corn-picking career Lord was able to harvest about an acre a day.
In 1947, after farming near Grinnell, Iowa for a few years, Lord joined the Brethren Service Committee, a religious group helping to replace farm animals killed in foreign countries during World War II. In cooperation with the United Nations, the so-called "sea-going cowboys" sailed ships loaded with cattle, sheep and other farm supplies to various European, African, and Chinese ports-of-call. Once they arrived, the cargo was distributed to area farmers. The program was the pre-cursor to Heifer Project International, a non-profit agency seeking to end world hunger and poverty by sharing animals, resources and agricultural skills. Lord continues to be connected with Heifer Project.
After making an agreement with his father he would return by spring harvest, the 22-year old set out on a six-week odyssey that changed his life.
The crew of "cowboys" Lord was assigned to docked in Greece and the African country of Djibouti. The trip was an adventure that included a fair amount of on-the-job training.
Howard Lord, Montezuma: "...and they were saying who could shear sheep and they said, 'Well, Lord you can shear sheep. You were on the farm and you've sheared sheep' and I said, 'No, I've seen it done but I've never done it.' So, they had a pair of hand clippers and the foreman started shearing sheep and they said, 'We can't do this. We have to be in charge of the men. Somebody try this.' And so I tried it and was able to do it. So, I sheared sheep all the way to Africa."
While docked in Djibouti, Lord remembers a moment that changed his life forever.
Howard Lord, Montezuma: "I saw a different part of the world than I'd ever seen before. I tell you -- kids starving and the potbellies and the red hair and the begging and so I came home and I think that was part of the call to the ministry."
A few months after returning home, Lord married his sweetheart Wilma Russell. Lord's bride of 62 years was happy to see her husband's dream come true.
Wilma Lord, Montezuma: "I'm glad he was able to do it of course and enjoy it. Some people enjoy doing other things but he enjoyed farm life and picking corn is farm life with lots of good memories behind it."
For the first few years of their marriage the Lords worked a 200 acre farm and began to raise their children. But Howard's passion for the ministry was a strong one. A local pastor encouraged him to attend college and follow his calling. Lord never went back to the farm.
Howard Lord, Montezuma: "Well, the minister one Sunday evening said, 'If you know if you're going to preach you need to go to college.' And I said,' What do you mean?' He said, 'Well, I thought you were called to preach.' And I said, 'We'd better talk.' We had -- we were married and had one boy already and so we -- we met him that week and sat down. By the time we left his house that night both of us, Wilma and I knew that this -- we were going to be a preacher the rest of our lives."
He attended college in Iowa and then moved to New Jersey to enter the seminary eventually returning to Iowa at the end of his career. During his 38 years in the ministry there was always a connection to the land. In the early years, the Lords would bring their four young children to the family farm each summer. Though they all enjoyed the experience, none of the four children became fulltime farmers.
Finally, more than two decades ago, Lord chose to retire and live in Iowa. Unknowingly, his passing thought at 18 had started him on the course to a sunny Saturday afternoon in a cornfield 65 years later.
Howard Lord, Montezuma: "...we never ever had any second thoughts about it and we love the farm. We love to come back."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller