20-year-old James Owen
For as long as James Owen, 20, can remember, summers have meant being out in the corn field near the Gleason water tower at the first light, picking sweet corn with his brother and two sisters.
Being the youngest, he’s the last one keeping the family tradition alive. His two sisters and brother have all moved on, to college and careers; he’s at Tennessee Tech studying to be a chemical engineer.
The money that he will earn at farmers’ markets will help him with rent, books and tuition when he goes back in the fall. Each year his father has planted three to four acres in sweet corn for his children for the school fund, values-teaching project.
The sweet corn is planted the conventional way, not the no-till, Roundup-ready method used on vast acreages of field corn.
The corn has a shorter season, 75-90 days as opposed to 111, and is not as tall, with more room between rows for hand pickers in jeans.
The last Monday morning in June, James was happy to be out in the field, this time with his mother and father helping him fill the truck.
Though he does rise early for 8 a.m. classes in Cookeville, he says that this earlier morning venture is a lot more enjoyable than a lecture.
He has a regular routine, hitting the Martin Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, the biggest day, and then Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Huntington sees his corn on Tuesday.
After picking the corn and tossing the buckets into the truck, he heads for the family-owned car wash in Gleason and hoses the corn down with cold water to keep the ears fresh. Then it’s off to the market for some “peddling,” says his mother.
Doris Owen explains that when all four kids were selling the corn, she would send them off to the grocery stores, in the days when they accepted more local produce, one group going in the direction of Martin and Union City and the other in the direction of McKenzie and Paris.
The money they would earn at the end of the summer was divided up among the children and dedicated to a budget the children would make for school supplies and school clothes.
“It was all about values,” says the retired Gleason school teacher.
“Teaching them what it was to work, where money comes from, how much it takes to buy what they need.”
“It teaches them at an early age how to get up early and go to work,” adds his father.
During the year, his father Eric and his uncle Robert farm about 2,500 acres in soybeans, wheat and field corn, so this sweet corn operation is fairly small in comparison.
No mammoth harvesters here. But what they don’t get in dollars, they get in quality family time that everyone seems to treasure for the memories and the life lessons.
While snacking on “breakfast,” a raw fresh ear right out of the field, the Owens explain that this has sometimes been a three-generation project, with one of the two grandfathers driving the truck, the children bringing buckets back and forth to the field and the parents doing the picking.
Each bucket holds about 25 ears, about 10 pounds, James estimates.
“Pretty good for an eight-year old,” he says, “ it took two hands.”
“That was my first time lifting weights.”
His mother says that at the end of the season the family would “work” about 1,000 ears by scraping the corn with a knife until all of the sweet juice was squeezed from the ear, blanching it and then freezing it for the year. The kids would get the husking job and others would pull off the silks.
James flies through the field of Peaches and Cream feeling the corn to see if it is full enough to pick, the brown silks poking out through the top.
“The first touch and you can tell,” says James who is concentrating on the ear count. This morning he just wants about 350 ears because Monday afternoons are a bit slower than Saturday mornings at the Martin Farmer’s Market, a venue that the whole family praises as being the most organized around. On a Saturday, James with the help of his engineer brother Sam, 23, can sell a whole truckload of 1,000-1,500 ears, at $4 a dozen.
But the season is short, maybe two and a half weeks. James figures all of the Incredible, Bodacious and Peaches and Cream will be picked by Wednesday.
While James is snatching up the sweet corn, his father Eric takes stock of the toll the drought has played, having not seen any rain since June 11.
“It should have filled out more, been girthier,” he says as he rips back a shuck.
“Everything is going backwards,” explains the senior Owen who points out the brown around the edges of the crop of field corn. “It’s starving for water.”
With a good early start in the spring, he says that farmers had been excited about the potential. But estimated yields have now been downgraded, from about 180 bushels an acre to about 100. He displays an ear of field corn that will be ready near the end of August that looks a little smaller than it should.
“All we can do is pray about it and not worry. I’m just proud to be here.”
“Every year is different as a farmer.”
By 7:30 a.m. James is already in the truck, eager to get his fresh green “clean corn” (no bugs, it’s a family “trade secret”) off to the car wash for a cold shower before the heat of the day arrives.
Clear pride in product and family.