Acres and Pains


There is a delightfully droll old book by that name lamenting the ways that nature humbles and humiliates farmers every step of the way from planting to harvest. I have been a victim of nature’s whims (my whims really) this spring and I’ve got the acres and the aches to prove it. I planted a plot of open-pollinated corn like I do every year in hopes of developing giant-sized ears of corn. I do this mostly for fun, not for money, and it’s a good thing, because this year my corn growing has been a rather pathetic experience. There is a great learning experience involved, about how cultural habit so often overwhelms rationality but I am trying not to think about that.

Considering my primitive planting method— two hand- pushed garden planters connected together to do two rows at once— the corn came up nicely in soil worked well with a tractor-powered rotary tiller. The date was May 12, the perfect time for corn planting here. Oh happy days. Yeah.

Birds pulled up nearly every little spear of corn and ate the sprouted kernel. I think crows were the culprits because if it were less wary robins or blackbirds, the usual attackers, I would have caught them in the act.

I have tried scarecrows in other years, but not with much efficacy. So I waited, thinking (hoping) that the birds would lose interest before much damage was done, as is usually the case. Not this time. I had planted very shallowly because continuous rains had kept the soil wet and cool. Made it easy for the birds to uproot the kernels. When I re-planted on the last day of May after the soil had warmed up, I planted three and a half inches deep, risky in any event and something I could not have done earlier in spring. If the cussed birds were going to eat the kernels, they were going to have to work for them.

More heavy rains followed, plastering the soil down so only two thirds of the corn came up. At least the birds didn’t eat it this time. Whether it was because the corn was planted deep or because the foul fowls were no longer hungry for corn, I don’t know. But then some of the corn that did come up turned yellow, then brown and died in the moisture clogged soil. Hardly a half crop remained and it looked poorly.

Interestingly, I could not find bird damage out in the fields of neighboring farmers. Does my old open-pollinated corn taste better than hybrid corn, especially GMO hybrids? Lots of oldtimers think so, but I don’t know. Commercial hybrid seed is usually treated with a fungicide. Maybe that’s why the birds didn’t bother it. I used to douse my corn seed in a slurry of kerosene and tar before planting when I had bird problems years ago, but the birds ate it anyway. So who knows? There is so much mystery in farming. Maybe that is why we poor souls who want to feed the world keep at it, despite the acres of pain.

I write this on June 21. I replanted for the third time yesterday, the ultimate madness. Corn planted this late has about as much chance as the proverbial snowball in hell. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps we will be overcome by global warming this fall and it won’t frost until November and I’ll have a crop after all. Or perhaps the small portion of the crop that survived from the May 31 planting will produce some 16-inch ears of corn which I can foolishly brag about. I am obviously demented, a perfect example of how culture so often wins out over reason. Tilling soil is my heritage. We could raise most of our food without tearing up millions of acres of soil every year, but I must remain faithful to my culture.

Learning experience? How about this lesson. Before I replanted the third time, the quack grass had swarmed and frolicked gaily over the bare soil, threatening to overwhelm the struggling corn that still remained from the second planting. Quack grass loves rainy weather and bare soil. It is one of nature’s defenses against soil erosion. Nature hates bare soil. I eyed the quack grass ruefully, knowing full well how livestock love this free gift from nature when it is young and lush. The obvious madness of growing annually cultivated crops was staring me right in the face, but I remained unmoved, chained to corn by my culture. I ripped up the quack grass with the tiller. Take that, Mother Nature. We raise corn in the cornbelt, and by heaven we will continue to do so until death do us part.
Image Credit: Quackgrass Ohio State University


Reading the responses to your article saved me from working on a field trial solution next year. I remembered that somewhere in one of Gene’s books he quoted a saying that the garden was a proving grounds for the farm (I’m paraphrasing). So when I heard about the corn/bird problem — I figured I’d try a hot pepper spray at seed emergence to see if it helps (maybe the only good widespread use for some of these ultra hot peppers like a Bhut Jolokia). But as I read above, the birds aren’t affected by it so it says above.

Thanks for saving me from a hopeless experiment! I guess Mother Nature will take her share regardless of man’s best efforts…


Birds can’t taste capsacian, the substance that makes hot peppers spicy. If it successfully discourages a creature from messing with your plants, then the critter is probably a mammal.

Becky and Katie, Perelman is one of my favorite authors too. As for something ripping up plants, I think the culprit is raccoons. They love to pull up newly set out plants and then just leave them lay there. I theorize it is something in the potting medium, or maybe just disturbing the ground makes them think of earthworms. Gene

Sometimes I use cayenne pepper or chili powder to discourage birds and some other animals.It doesn’t seem to hurt my plants at all.
If I use organic fertilizer w/ fish meal or blood meal or even feather meal the animals go after that ripping up the plants.

Acres and Pains is one of my favorite books, and S.J. Perelman a favorite author! On the subject of endless planting, something dug up our Brussels sprouts but didn’t eat or steal them. I’m wondering if the critter was drawn to the pro-gro fertilizer? Just rows of Brussels sprouts strewn wantonly over the beds, their former homes gaping in the sunlight. Sigh.

Andrea, missed your question earlier. I have often planted pole beans around the cornstalks. They grow up right along with the corn. I sometimes plant pumpkins and squash where the corn doesn’t come up. Livestock eat them as readily as they eat corn. For me squash might shade out some weeds definitely not all, and the corn will shade out the squash sometimes. Gene

Thank you Gene, I found the photo. Very interesting! I have a different planter though. I have a 1950 WD Allis Chalmers, see you have a WD or WD45. I find them to be affordable to buy and run compared to a Deere or others. Hope your corn makes it, my field about 1/2 acre has a bunch of yellow corn ..real wet! Thanks for your comments. Pastor Mike

Mike, I plant Ried’s Yellow Dent too. You can find a picture of my planter on one of my blogs on this website sometime last spring.

Hi Gene,
I planted some Ried’s Yellow Dent corn this spring. Mine came up all right and the bird’s didn’t get it, but with the monsoon rains here south of I-80 in Iowa alot of it looks yellow! Man God has a plan with all this rain, but I don’t know what it is! What variety did you plant?
I planted mine with a push garden seeder. I would be interested in hearing more about your planter and photo or two of it. Thanks
Pastor Mike Townsley in Iowa

Oh, Gene, how you make me laugh! You’d think after 40+ years of gardening and ranching (in my case) and more than that in yours, we would have learned that all we can do with Old Bitch Nature–love that name you gave her–is go with the flow. A farmer needs to be as flexible as Gumby. Like two years ago when we had a hard freeze at the end of April; it knocked back six inches of new growth and clobbered the fruit tree blossoms. The blackberries were OK because they don’t bloom until the end of June, so we ate lots of blackberries. Then last year it was a BAD hail storm–it shredded the blackberries, but thinned the stone fruit, so we had a great crop of apples and plums. So far this year there hasn’t been anything that bad, so both fruit trees and blackberries are coming along nicely. Of course, it’s a light bearing year for the plums…

Have you tried a corn/beans/squash combination, all in the same field? Usually if the squash can get a head start, it will shade out weeds of all types.

I wish you the best on your corn crop. I would say that based on the rainforest-like rains we have got over here in Illinois this year you have good odds of no frost till January. Nothing would surprise me anymore.

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