Picking Corn

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Submitted Article
Picking Corn
by Rick Nikolich

It was the day before Christmas shutdown at work and I asked our lead engineering expert Scott Andrzejewski what he was going to do over the holidays. He said that he had some corn that he still needed to pick with an antique one-row New Idea corn picker.

Scott has a nice farm about an hour north of Lansing in St. Johns, MI. He wanted to get the rest of his corn in by the next day (Christmas Eve). We had about an inch of new snow on the ground and single digit temperatures. So in the back of my mind I was thinking that it may be a little cold to pick corn. He then mentioned that he planned on pulling the picker with his Case 1070 that had a heated cab, so it would be nice and toasty..

I hadn't helped pick corn since I was a small kid on my Granddads farm in southern Indiana, but it sounded like a fun task. So I asked Scott if I could bring up one of my antique Allis Chalmers tractors and help. He agreed and said that we should start around 9 a.m. so that we would be done by lunch time.

When I got home that evening and explained my plan to my wife Dawn she was supportive, but reminded me that I was supposed to spend the day with her and my 22 month old son Luke. I reassured her that it would only take a few hours to pick the corn, and if she wanted to she could come along. Well that didn't exactly go over big, so I had to come up with a plan "B" quickly or my little outing was off. After fumbling for a moment I played m y trump card. What if we stop and eat breakfast at the Cracker Barrel on our way to Scott's farm? My wife agreed before I even had a chance to think about what I said!

That evening I thought about which tractor would be best suited for the task. I settled on my 1960 Allis Chalmers D14. The D10 was too light to pull a picker and loaded gravity wagon through the snow, and the D17 seemed to be overkill.

Early the next morning I fired up the D14 and let it warm up before I loaded it up on the trailer. The thermometer said that it was below zero so Dawn, Luke and I bundled up extra warm and squeezed into my pickup for the drive. The D14 weighs a little over 5,000 pounds and the trailer almost 3,000 pounds so I drove back roads extra slow with white knuckles all the way. We stopped at a gas station to fill the tractor with fresh gas and then stopped for breakfast.

When we arrived at Scott's farm he was outside trying to start the Case tractor to move the corn picker but the fuel had gelled. I went to start the D14 and it didn't even fire once. I had just ran it two hours earlier and it had never let me down. Then we tried to isolate the problem by pulling a plug to check for spark. It checked out ok. Then I took a wrench and loosened the fuel line, it had no flow at all. We traced the clog back to an ice build-up in the sediment bowl. We cleaned it out and she fired right up. I was relieved to hear the D14 come to life, I was worried that I went to all of this trouble and played my trump card for nothing.

woman and baby sitting in truck
Dawn and Luke staying warm.
My wife and son Luke watched from the warm cab of the truck while Scott and I hooked up the picker and gravity wagon and then headed to the field. I had never used a one-row picker before so Scott gave me a few quick instructions and I was off. Once the PTO was engaged all the conveyers, chains, augers, pulleys, etc... sounded like a freight train that was following me. The field seemed about 3 miles long and when I reached the end I made a U-turn and headed back to pick another row. I didn't realize that if you turn a corner before the conveyor clears that the corn dumps on the ground instead of the wagon, because the chute isn't lined up over the wagon while turning. Picking the corn up off the ground helped reinforce this embarrassing lesson. I was hoping that my Granddad wasn't watching from up above to see this stunt.

corn being harvested by tractor, corn picker and trailer
Filling up the wagon quick.
After the third lap around the field the tractor started to sputter, then quit. It was ice in the gas again so we poured in some alcohol and waited a few minutes. I removed the sediment bowl to clean it out and spilled some gas on my bare hands. Wow, was that ever cold! Soon the D14 was running again and we were pickin' corn in 3rd gear. About halfway around the field the ear snapping rolls clogged up and we had to stop and clear out the corn stalks. To clear the stalks out we had to shut off the PTO, crawl on the frozen ground under the picker and tug on each stalk one at a time until all of them were freed up. After stopping to do this a few more times I learned that 2nd gear allowed the picker to keep up and not get clogged. As I made another pass around the field I could see my son Luke's face pressed against the truck's window anxiously wanting the tractor.

I pulled up near the truck, got off and asked my wife if I could take Luke for a ride. She said that he had been driving her crazy trying to get a tractor ride. Letting children ride on farm equipment can be dangerous so I held Luke tightly on my lap and went slow.

man carrying baby to truck to warm up
Carrying Luke back to the truck.
He was bundled up very warm in a snow suit and was finally content to be on the tractor. All the anticipation must have worn him out, because after about 10 minutes he was asleep and I had to carry him back to the truck.

By now I had started to get the hang of corn picking and the wagon was filling up fast. To slow down to turn corners I would use the D14's hand power-director clutch. This would allow the PTO to keep turning and the corn picker to empty it's conveyor without having to shift the transmission into neutral. The tractor and New Idea picker were a perfect match and seemed to have been made for each other. My granddad used Allis Chalmers tractors and a New Idea pull-type corn picker for years and I wondered if he encountered similar experiences 50 years ago?

Pretty soon the wagon was getting full and we were ready to unload it into the corn crib. Scott and I uncoupled the gravity wagon and hooked a PTO driven elevator up to the D14 to unload the wagon. By the time we got it emptied and the tractor loaded up for the drive home it was about 1 p.m. During the ride home Luke was getting a little restless and Dawn and I were getting hungry so we stopped at McDonald's for lunch. With a devilish grin my wife said that she was so lucky, and that I really had spoiled her that day!

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