by Emily Akin- What does fall mean to most people these days? Fall break! Time off from school and maybe a short vacation trip. It’s also the season for fall festivals, Halloween parties, Thanksgiving, and perhaps a chance to see the harvest moon. But fall also means harvest, the winding down of summer gardens and the final gathering in of major crops like corn, soybeans, hay, and cotton. Most of us forget to celebrate the harvest because we have no role in bringing in the crops. We just have to be on the lookout for farmers as they move their heavy equipment from field to field and maintain our patience if they slow us down. And, we may be bothered by the dust and chaff generated by those machines as it clouds the air and settles on our just-washed cars.
In the “olden days,” when I was growing up, we didn’t have fall break. We had two weeks off from school in September or October. It was called “cotton picking.” Many families raised cotton, and every available person was needed to harvest the crop by hand. Picking cotton was a fact of life for kids who lived on farms. Town kids might earn some spending money if they could find a farmer looking for pickers. The fields were full of people, cotton sacks hung over the shoulder, pulling the cotton out of the bolls. It was back-breaking work. They’d pick until the sack was full or they couldn’t pull the weight any more then take it to the wagon for weighing. Pickers were paid by the pound. Back then, a sure sign of fall was puffs of cotton that lined the sides of the roads where they had blown off the truck or wagon on the way to the gin. Now the cotton picking machines gather the cotton and bale it or pack it in modules that stay in the field until the gin is ready for it. Or perhaps the farmer will transport it to the gin lot where it will sit until it’s ginned.
Union City resident Jerry Cheatham recalls harvesting corn by hand. Some call it corn-husking. He grew up on a farm in the Elbridge-Obion area of Obion County. “You’d hold the ear at the base and twist it out of the shuck with the other hand, then toss it into the wagon that was moving alongside.” Even wearing gloves, pickers’ hands would be very sore after husking all day. “Even when we had got corn-picking equipment in the late 1940s or early 1950s, we still had to do outside rows by hand,” Cheatham said. In some states where they grow a lot of corn, farming communities still have corn-husking contests. To see how it’s done, see this video on YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/hffnl6a. Imagine how long it would take to harvest a whole field that way. Once the corn was husked, farmers then took the corn to a mill and paid to have it shelled off the cob. Or they could hand shell it by hand with a hand-cranked shelling device. This fall, in the Ken-Tenn area, we’ll see machinery harvesting immense fields in a matter of hours. The corn picker shells the corn, disposes of the shucks and cobs, and weighs the corn so that the farmer can take it to the elevator ready to sell. Some machines even calculate yield per acre.
Though we’re surrounded by large farms, very few local residents have first-hand experience with farming. We’ve never driven a tractor, plowed a field, milked a cow, herded livestock, or figured the cost on inputs for row crops. We are two or three generations removed from actual farming. In 1900, farmers made up 38 percent of the work force. Fast-forward to 1990, and the percentage had decreased to 2.6%. Tim Smith of Obion County Extension Service said less than one percent of the U. S. population is engaged in farming today. And about 17 percent of the population, including farmers, work in agriculture-related industries.
So fall is here. Let’s do all the things that make fall fun. Let’s also celebrate the harvest and appreciate the people who do the work of harvest for us. Be patient if you get caught behind a gigantic piece of farm equipment on the road. Pull over or around, and give the driver a wave. Overlook the grain spilled on the roadway on the way to the elevator. Our farmers do us all a great service, and there are so many more of us than there are of them. When Thanksgiving Day comes around, let’s give thanks for our food and for the people who produce it. And maybe even give thanks that you don’t have to grow food yourself unless you really want to.