Frank Hennenfent is a typical Illinois farmer. At this time of year, he spends countless hours in an air-conditioned, GPS-equipped combine – an enormous machine that can harvest as many as 12 rows of corn at a time.
But in late September, Hennenfent was going back to the basics. He was a top competitor at the 34th annual Illinois State Corn Husking Competition.
This contest is held in a corn field in Roseville, a community in western Illinois. It’s one of nine competitions happening during harvest season all across the Midwest. For some, picking corn by hand is about more than winning. It’s about a connection to the past and remembering the older generations who labored in the fields.
“When I pick corn I totally lose myself in it,” Hennenfent says.
Standing at the end of a long row, he squares off against a field of corn.
Hennenfent begins picking the corn with his hands, slicing through the husk with a hook that’s attached to his palm with a leather strap. Then, he snaps the golden ear off its stalk, and tosses it over his shoulder into a wagon following alongside.
As he makes his way down the row, corn flies through the air. He’s in the zone. “You don’t really hear anybody around you or anything,” he says. “It’s just next ear, next ear, next ear.
There are several races throughout the day — ranging from 2-minute peewee contests for the kids to 20-minute matches for those 50 and up.
The original competitions began in 1924 and grew in popularity in the 1930s as farmers struggled through the Depression and the dry days of the Dust Bowl. Back then, state competitions routinely drew crowds in the thousands and in 1938, newspapers reported 125,000 spectators attended the national competition in Iowa. For context, Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, holds 61,500 fans.
Don McKinley grew up in the 1930s in southwestern Iowa on a farm with 100 acres of corn. During the harvest, he and his brothers would drop out of school for two months to help their dad pick corn from before sun up till after dark. “We just fall over into bed, collapse, get up the next morning and do it all over again,” he says.
McKinley says each of them brought in about 4,500 pounds a day. That’s a lot of corn.
But today, a big combine harvests close to 200,000 pounds an hour. To get the same results, you’d need more than 2,000 people picking by hand.
“My dad would turn over in his grave if he knew there was a machine that could pick that much,” McKinley says.
Back in the corn field, Frank Hennenfent is finishing his race and he’s attracted a crowd. He picked 450 pounds of corn in 20 minutes.
It might not be good enough to compete with John Deere. But it will take him to the national competition being held Sunday in Amana, Iowa.
Abby Wendle reports from Illinois for Tri States Public Radio and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. A version of this story originally appeared on Harvest Public Media’s site.