Watch the Corn Grow

Community comes together to husk and eat corn for the annual Adel Corn Festival.

June 29, 2011

The goateed undertaker wheeled his shiny black Harley past the town square of tiny Adel, Iowa, remembering what he had told city officials:

“As long as I don’t have a funeral, I’ll be there.”

So here he was, ready to lead a group of volunteers—whoever would happen to show up on this 91-degree Friday evening—to shuck a load of corn—7 1/2 tons of it. That’s approximately 16,200 cobs.
The corn itself is to be served up the next day to the 10,000 people who show up every year for the Adel Sweet Corn Festival, an annual event with the sole purpose of giving hot buttered fresh corn to whoever wants it.

This is funeral director Steve McCalley’s 17th year peeling, twisting, and snapping the green from the gold.

“This is probably my favorite part of the whole weekend,” he says. “Doctors, lawyers, funeral directors, residents of the county home—all standing side by side. A picture of this husking should be in the dictionary under ‘Community.’”

McCalley too is a volunteer, so dedicated that the Corn Fest has tended to take precedence over his anniversary for almost 2 decades.

“One year I got the band to make an announcement to my wife. It got me out of the doghouse.”

Despite the heat and the labor, the shuckers’ mood is light, jovial even. This is their idea of fun.

“Faster! Faster!” McCalley shouts, laughing.

“Hey, how many dead bodies you have in there,” a chamber official yells at him.

“Hey,” McCalley responds, “I’m empty!”

Three hours later, the corn on the cob is put in the refrigerated trailer, waiting for the line to form in front of the huge boiler Saturday morning.

But first: the parade!

The rules for being a part of the parade are as stringent as the requirements for volunteers. There are none. You want to be in the parade, you’re in the parade. Just line up with the others and wait for the group in front of you to start walking.

Like all small-town parades in Iowa, this one begins with someone carrying the American flag. Then a group of people carrying flags. Then more flags.

The ponytailed mayor sails by in a Mercedes convertible. Kids riding with the volunteer firefighters spray the crowd with water. The crowd claps to the high-school fight song. Go, Marching Tigers!
And then young Corbin Zahrt and his friends arrive sitting on a tatty couch seated on a flatbed filled with … what?

“It’s just random things we had lying around our barn,” he says. “And this old TV. And the Xbox. We’re going to play Halo.”

“Everyone at the festival is a volunteer,” says Robert Burditt, a financial services guy now in his sixth year as chairman. “I bet we have 500 for the day. A lot of them are repeaters every year. There’s no incentive. We don’t give away T-shirts. There’s no free food. We just need you. This community—it’s amazing to me. If somebody needs help, they all pitch in. And people really focus on the Sweet Corn Festival. They have family reunions around it.”

Time was when the brick streets of Adel used to run yellow this time of year, the result of thousands of pairs of hands dripping melted butter while they walked and ate. One year the fire department had to lay down kitty litter all over town, then hose the place off.

“They get slippery,” says retiree Rich Hughes, the volunteer in charge of the cooking operations. “We’ll go through 36 gallons of butter. This year we use gallon jugs with hand pumps so you just get as much butter as you need.”

And little drippy meltage.

“It’s funny to see people butter their corn,” Hughes says. “Everyone likes a lot of butter. But you have to remember that corn is hot. They make a mess. You should see the look on their faces.”

Perhaps the sweetest face at the Sweet Corn Fest is that of little Caitlyn Robertson, who at all of 15 months old is having her first taste of sweet corn.

“Look,” says mom Lindsey. “She’s not wearing as much butter a half the people here.”

If you’ve ever taken the interstate through Iowa and driven through hours and hours of cornfields, what you are looking at is not sweet corn. It is feed corn. Food for pigs.

It takes a special kind of farmer to make the numbers work to actually raise corn to feed people. And Ron Deardorff is that kind of farmer. He’s been growing the sweet corn for the festival for at least the past 20 years.

Deardorff grows about 155 acres of sweet corn, about the same of feed corn, and some soybeans (“beans,” they call them out here) and pumpkins.

“But sweet corn is my main crop,” he says. “I do 20 different planting dates, because it’s impossible to determine when they’ll be ready, what with the weather and the temperature.


“I keep track of the planting dates for the Sweet Corn Fest, and it ranged all the way from May 18 to May 30.”

He has to harvest all of his sweet corn by hand.

“Machines bruise the butt end of corn, and they harvest everything so you have to sort it.”

But at least he will be able to relax at the festival and enjoy the bounty of his labors, right?

“Saturday is another workday for me,” he says. “I haven’t seen the parade since I got into the sweet corn business.”

This is Dan Hawkins’ 27th year volunteering to man the huge and intricate broiler.

“It really cleans out your pores,” he says.

Hawkins is a local banker, but the lure of the corn fest is such that it attracts fans from afar.

Jacqueline McLaughlin of Los Angeles and her pal Mary Wilcox of Orange County discovered the festival a few years ago and now return annually to help shuck and serve corn.

“We’re the Adel Fan Club!” says McLaughlin. And she hands out one of the yellow wrist bands she had made for the day: “Adel Fan Club SCF 2010.”

Tracy Davis of the Big Island of Hawaii is here with friends, all for the first time.

“We’re all imported,” she says; she’s accompanied by coworkers Andy Hricovec of Cleveland and Sarah Neiter of Billings, Montana.

“We just love corn,” says Neiter. “It is messy, but a good messy—a rewarding messy.”

But the very first person in line for corn is a local, Jay Erickson, who is here for the eighth time.

“We’re doing a reunion,” he says. “My father-in-law is here from Gainesville. My brother is here from Stockton, California. We did the State Fair yesterday and the Sweet Corn Festival today.”

This being the festival’s 31st year, the festival officials have pretty much got the particulars down pat.
The green shucks now go to a farmer for cattle feed. The beer is sold only in recyclable plastic bottles, the empties given to the Lions Club for redemption. Automobiles are banned from town for the day. You can take the bike trail to the festivities, or the shuttles from the high school.

Seems like in celebrating the joys of consumption in all things sweet corn, they haven’t forgotten a thing.

Well, maybe one thing.

Where does a guy get some dental floss around here?