Growing up, I often despised the cornfields surrounding my parents' house outside of Bozeman, Mont. By the end of July, the plants rose to the sky, blocking our view and trapping their own musty sweat. When I pulled on patched jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, my eyes heavy at 6 a.m., the fields meant hard work to me.
My mother was the first grower to raise sweet corn for the local grocery stores in the Gallatin Valley. Since our fields only numbered a few acres, they required that we move irrigation pipe, hoe weeds and pick the ears, all by hand. After one of these tasks - or corn-plant wrestling bouts, as I often thought of them - I stomped around with giant mud-caked shoes, battered with stinging leaf cuts, drenched in moisture and plastered with pollen.
But memory must look back with the new light of a sunrise over the Bridger Mountains. Now when I journey back home, I long to stand secretly in the middle of the field, listening to the hum of the bees and the rustle of leaves like paper sacks in the breeze. I think how each spiny plant of my childhood existed as part of my mother's dream.
It began in 1979. Home full-time with two children, my mother looked at the weed patch surrounding our house and struck upon an idea. She decided she would grow the first real sweet corn in the valley. My mother knew cold soils and a short growing season made it difficult to grow corn that reached beyond four feet tall and produced the desired large, sweet ears, but with the help of my agronomist father, she researched and found seed from Canada, called "Super Sweets," that could withstand the climate of western Montana. She asked my father, who enjoyed reliving his farm childhood sitting on the 9N tractor he bought at an auction, to clear out the yellow clover and once again expose the rich soil of what used to be a wheatfield. Then she recruited my brother and me to plant an acre of the Canadian corn, dropping each seed from white ice cream buckets and covering up the kernels with swoops of an old garden rake.
It wasn't long before the plants began popping through the crust. We spent the rest of the summer following my mother across the field, her tall, thin frame dressed in man's clothes and a splintered straw hat. We moved a dozen garden hoses and rusty sprinklers she found at farm sales, and hoed endless weeds out of the way. My mother wore down her metal hoe to a nub by the end of summer.
Meanwhile, the neighbors convinced each other that my mother's sanity had disappeared with the yellow clover.
When my mother disclosed her vision of supplying the grocery stores with "eating corn," they shook their heads in disbelief. They continued to shake their heads as they drove slowly by our place, watching the corn grow to three inches in June, to knee-high on the Fourth of July, and eventually to over six feet in August.
The snapshots of our first harvest live in a box somewhere in the attic. My brother and I stand before a wall of corn, our hair neatly combed. My mother, still clad in her straw hat, holds a robust shucked ear for the camera, displaying it proudly like a box of Tide. That night, we feasted until a substantial stack of naked cobs sat like a monument in the middle of the table.
My mother still had to market her product. She spent a day in Bozeman lugging around a box of corn and showing it to several produce managers at the local grocery stores. Every man said no and some laughed at her.
"Lady, your 10x10 patch in your backyard can't possibly supply this store," one said.
When she tried to explain that she could provide them a hundred dozen or more a day for the next couple of weeks, they continued to scoff. Defeated, she threw the box of wilted ears into the back of the pickup and drove home. The next day, my father went into the stores with a fresh box and came back with some handshake agreements.
From that day forward, my mother built her business on one inflexible principle: deliver quality. We checked every ear of the thousands of dozens that came off five acres each summer and we picked it the same day we delivered it. Today, the produce managers call my mother, she picks and chooses whom she sells to, and she names the price. She is annually featured in the local newspaper and she teaches gardening workshops to the community. No one would have guessed all this would emerge from her perseverance in 1979.
I think about the hundreds of days of my childhood spent in the cornfield and I realize it has served me well. I know the value of a hard day's work and the satisfaction that comes from putting your body and your soul into something worthwhile. I know the hope of a freshly planted field, the sound of the first ear being plucked and the sadness of harrowing the brittle stocks into the soil after the frost. And I can still smell the renewal of the field as it thaws again in the spring.
The dirt of my mother's dreams still lies under my fingernails. I feel proud that I grew up on a sweet corn farm in Montana. Twenty years after my mother's doubtful beginnings as a farmer, I find myself standing in my own backyard, feeling the soil's potential with my hands, and I think about sowing seeds.
Jody Holzworth works for The Nature Conservancy in Hailey, Idaho.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jody Holzworth