Stripping corn fodder lost to past

Published 5:19 pm Tuesday, December 3, 2019

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Back in the 1950s, many small farms, including ours, were still picking corn with one and two-row “snapper” corn pickers, so-called because the corn stalks were fed between two rollers that simply snapped the ears from the stalk, and then fed it into a chute to be dropped in a trailer.

The whole ears were then transported, as they had been for centuries, to a well-ventilated corncrib the ears were stored until fed whole or ground into feed.

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In order to be picked and stored as whole ears, corn had to be left in the field to dry naturally. Only when the ears and stalks had fully dried could the corn be picked. If it were damp, the pickers wouldn’t pull it cleanly from the stalk and, if if they had, damp corn would spoil in the crib.

You can still find an occasional corncrib on farms. Many of them were built of logs that were notched and linked together with generous spacing between each. Ours was made of sawn boards, also spaced to provide ventilation. A common feature of corncribs was a wide roof around the sides, necessary to keep rain from beating into the stored crop.

Drying corn stalks in the field presented a dilemma in Southeast Virginia. This area always had the potential of being in the path of a tropical storm or hurricane, and dry corn stalks, with heavy ears near their top, were easily blown over.

The solution, in our day, was to cut the tops off stalks just above the corn ears. “Cuttin’ tops” was one of August’s more disagreeable chores.

The tops were cut with sharp, long-bladed knives. Everything from machetes to long-bladed butcher knives were employed. My brother even made a pair for us in the school shop, using discarded saw blades that were fashioned into knives. They were lightweight, held an edge and were deadly on corn tops.

A cornfield, with drying corn fodder meeting in the balks, was a particularly nasty place to be on a hot and muggy August day. If there were any air stirring, it was usually blocked by the corn, and the drying stalks created a humid atmosphere that compounded the heat of summer’s final month.

And then, there were corn fodder worms, evil little things that fell off stalks onto your neck. They could sting as bad as a wasp or bee, leaving red welts that looked — and felt — for all the world like a hot coal had landed on you. They are actually known as saddleback caterpillars, but we associated them with the corn fodder where many of them resided, and thus gave them the “fodder” name.

It was in the middle of a large cornfield that my father instructed several of us young top cutters in the ancient art of fodder harvest.

We had stopped to take a breather and he said “Let me show you something.”

He then began stripping corn fodder off stalks, rolling it up, and tying it with another strip of fodder. This little package of fodder was then tucked behind a corn ear before he moved on down the row to do another.

He explained that in his youth (he was born in 1900) all the Edwards children who were big enough to help, were put in the corn fields to strip and save fodder. The fodder was left to dry and then collected and taken to a barn where it was stored, as the corn ears would be later on. It was an early and rather crude form of silage.

I watched as my father deftly stripped, tied and tucked small piles of fodder onto stalks and was beginning to be concerned that he might have come up with another August chore.

I finally mustered the nerve to ask if were were going to do that, and got a quick and definitive response

“Hell no. I swore when I grew up I’d never pull fodder again,” he said. “I just thought you ought to know how it was done.”

I can still visualize that little lesson on a hot August day, and believe that, pushed to do so, I could hang fodder to this day. Of course, it’s a worthless piece of information for the 21st century, but by taking the time to show us, he guaranteed that an ancient farm task wouldn’t be forgotten for at least one more generation.