In the six months since my layoff from Rutgers when the funding dried up, I had had a lot of adventures. There was the driving all over New Jersey to get enough dishes for a Zero Waste Event, and washing them afterwards in the ladies’ room at the PSE&G building.
There was the Unemployment Compensation adventure. Packing corn on my friend Scott’s farm seemed one more adventure that life was sending me. And besides, my husband, newly retired, wanted to pack corn as well.
I have always thought Scott Ellis, my friend of many years from joint service on the Mercer County Soil Conservation District, grows the best corn in the state, right on Sawmill Road in Hamilton Township. He sells most of his corn to farmstands around the state, who pick it up early each summer morning.
He mostly uses a huge mechanical picker, going out in the dark with Jerry, a farmer friend, to pick and load into wagons. The corn is unloaded from the wagons onto a conveyor belt by another farmer friend, Herb, and then all of us packers select the good ears and pack them into bags, 52 per bag.
Scott bought the packing assembly from another farmer who was quitting corn farming, and built the shed to fit around it. There was a conveyor belt, open at the top to allow corn to be unloaded easily off wagons brought in from the field. Corn traveled down the belt, past stations that consisted of table-like appendages fastened to the sides of the conveyor belt housing. Each of these little tables could be used to pile empty bags so that packers could grab a new one as soon as they had filled one.
At the end of the conveyor belt was a chute, which directed the rejected corn into another conveyor belt. The rejected corn came up the belt on the outside of the packing shed and dropped into a manure spreader. This particular manure spreader had not seen manure for a long time but could be taken out to the field to spread the reject corn for cultivating into the soil, adding nutrients and organic matter.
Gary, yet another farmer friend (do you get the picture — all of these farmers get together to make sure everything gets done on all their farms), taught us how to pick up each ear from the conveyor belt by the silk end, making sure the ear was filled out to the end. Customers would complain about scraggly corn.
Gary also suggested that we could keep count by counting ears off in groups of 4, and counting up 13 groups per bag. One of the packers, a 6-foot plus teenager who had biked five miles in the dark, bombed out on counting the first day. He just couldn’t keep the running number in his head. Fortunately, Herb took him on at the top of the line, helping with the unloading.
I knew there wasn’t room for three up there at the top, but Gary’s counting system never worked for me. I had rediscovered within the first few minutes of counting what I had always known — I don’t just have a monkey mind, I have a menagerie mind. There are always several lines of thought going and a soundtrack playing music in the background. I just couldn’t add the 4 and 13 thing and hope to get the count right.
So I developed my own system, based on a favorite book, “Babel-17,” by Samuel R. Delany. In the book, Rydra, a poet and starship captain, finds a way to hear what the discorporate members of her crew are saying to her, by translating their words immediately into Basque, one of the hardest and most mysterious languages. When she heard her mind talking Basque to her, Rydra would focus on the Basque. My counting, 1-2-3 and so on was my own Basque, and I just had to let the other thoughts go away — my own version of Zen — and focus on the number I was up to every few seconds or so.
My husband liked to pack at a station near the head of the line, before anyone else got the chance to pick ears out. Sometimes he packed across from Brian, the fastest packer; I suspect there was some competition going on there.
Karina, Herb’s girlfriend, and a seasoned packer, worked the bottom of the conveyor belt, on the right side. Denise, a new employee with boundless energy who seemed to bounce around, worked the left side of the bottom of the belt.
They were the last thing between a good ear of corn and the chute to the manure spreader. I worked there one day, and it just didn’t work with my anxious personality. What if I accidentally picked a ratty ear? Scott would get a call complaining, for sure.
So me, I liked the middle of the belt. I didn’t have the pressure of packing with the superpackers, and I still had enough good ears to pick from to keep me from anxiety.
But even in the middle there were challenges. One day the 14-year-old girl across from me decided to try to get the best ears by roaming up and down the belt. She claimed the better ears were upstream of her.
Since she was really only going as far as the next packer (there must have been some extra space that day), she was getting only the same corn that the conveyor belt would have brought her if she stood still. I was amused by that thought, but then found myself getting really territorial. Now she was snatching corn from my side of the belt, practically just under my own fingers. I retaliated by snatching from her side.
But the next day, both she and I had the opportunity to reinvent ourselves as packers, and I could go back into my Basque, menagerie-mind world. Because on the whole, there was no chit-chat, no getting to know each other while the corn was flowing by. Either Nancy, Scott’s mother, and co-owner of the farm, or one of the other packers would chide anyone who did too much chatting. There was just no way to keep an accurate count.
Sometimes I worried that my count might be off, that the Basque had not been loud enough. I developed some systems for that too, my own Zen lessons. I taught myself to let go of each bag as I finished it, and not fret as I started a new bag. I learned to let slightly questionable corn go on by to capable Denise and Karina at the end of the belt. I learned that no one is too good not to pack corn — Scott would start packing when he got in from picking the corn for the day. I did also learn you didn’t want to pack next to Scott, because he made that frenetic girl look tame.
At the end of the season, storms blew most of the corn sideways, and made the mechanical picker useless. Scott called a farmer friend and hired his crew of trained pickers. Waiting for the corn from the pickers, I walked out to the field, to see artistry in motion. Each picker gracefully picked, held, and tossed corn into the wagon.
Gary calls Scott’s work an “art based on science.” It’s so much more than that — community, Scott wading into the chute leading to the manure spreader to fix the belt, zen and the art of eating raw corn off the cob. I recommend farm work for anyone who wants to learn their own Basque.
Ellis Farms, 214 Sawmill Road, Yardville 08620; 609-298-0923; Scott Ellis, owner. Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.