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One-of-a-kind corn puller … for the Valley

May 24, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

HOLTVILLE — Metal blades whirr, slicing pollinated corn stalks.

Rubber belts grab and pull the sliced stalks up and over rotating conveyor belts.

As the stalks get fed through the machinery, the ears of fresh market sweet corn are ripped off and plopped onto one conveyor belt, then roll to another.

The ears make their way through the belly of a phone-book yellow corn puller on a wide belt. They're dumped onto a more narrow ridged belt, which carries the ears up a hydraulic arm.

At the end of their trip, the ears tumble off the arm into the bin of a large truck rumbling alongside the puller.

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Alternately, the truck driver stares at the puller operator and his side mirror, making sure every ear finds the bin.

The operator, steady hand on the wheel, makes sure the four rotating rubber belt systems that grab the stalks are in line with the rows.

In Central California or the plains of Colorado, hundreds of such machines harvest the thousands of acres of fresh market sweet corn.

In the Imperial Valley, there is one.

The yellow Pixall corn puller Emil Schaffner and his 21-year-old son, Loren, have been operating for the past week is the only one working on the Valley's 6,000 or so acres of sweet corn.

This season Schaffner planted 800 acres and has been running his new puller 16 hours a day, working in shifts with his son, to get his corn to market.

There are not a lot of the pullers working Valley fields because of the costs associated with mechanically harvesting fresh market sweet corn.

According to a report by the University of Missouri, "Large acreages, which justify mechanical harvesting, hydro-cooling and truckload shipments to terminal markets or supermarket distribution centers, require the best possible land and considerable capital resources to set such an operation into motion."

For the past few years this unique set of circumstances hasn't existed in the Valley.

According to the 2000 Imperial County Agricultural Crop & Livestock report, county farmers harvested 5,906 acres of sweet corn last year. That harvesting was done by hand, ear by ear.

Standing behind a rumbling tractor laborers pull ears off stalks by hand and then throw the ears onto a platform towed by the tractor. On the platform, laborers pack boxes.

The vast majority of the corn harvested in the Valley is still done this way.

The platforms and tractors stand idle at the edge of Schaffner's field because of risks associated with the manual process, including injury to laborers.

Schaffner said he would avoid hiring manual field laborers if he could because of rising costs brought about by workers' compensation claims and the comparatively high California wage rates he is required to pay.

Tim Robinson, a farmer in Casa Grande, Ariz., thinks the same way.

He bought a Pixall, similar to the one Schaffner is operating, in 1995 and has tailored his corn- harvesting operations around the machine.

He said he has not seen any savings from running the puller but, for the reasons Schaffner mentioned, the machine makes sense anyway.

"We wanted to get people out of the field," Robinson said Wednesday.

"By keeping the laborers in the packing shed, in the shade, it makes their job easier. By making their job easier we are hoping to increase our quality."

With fresh market corn, quality is paramount.

Robinson said corn that is processed and put into cans is all mechanically harvested because quality can be compromised.

The vast majority of fresh market sweet corn, perfect for corn-on-the-cob, is still harvested by hand to maximize quality in a competitive market.

For the machines to make a farmer a hefty profit, however, the saturated fresh sweet corn market would have to drastically improve.

On a yearly average, farmers are getting $6 to $8 for a 50-pound carton of fresh market sweet corn. If the market falls below $4 per carton, which it can during slow times, a profit margin becomes a loss statement.

Since you can't lay off a machine during slow months, most Valley farmers have stuck with the known commodity of manual labor.

That could change if there is demand for fresh market sweet corn that results in a sustained upswing in market price.

Robinson said this week is a good time to harvest because of the demand for corn brought about by barbecues of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Robinson starts harvesting tonight.

For farmers thinking about making the investment in a puller, Robinson had this advice: plan ahead for next year's summer holiday season.

The vast majority of the pullers are custom made on demand by Pixall of Clearfield, Wisc., and one puller takes months to put together and deliver.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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