Max didn't weigh much more than a bushel of sweet corn himself the first summer he began noticing hand-painted signs propped against pickup trucks parked at busy street corners. It wasn't the taste of fresh corn that whetted his appetite though he likes a hot buttered ear (or six) as much as the next growing boy. It was the taste of money: $3 per dozen.
He began to germinate a plan. We had farmland, sunshine, and rain, he figured plus the bags of sweet corn seed given to his dad by seed reps each spring. This was free money, Max calculated, pure profit waiting to be harvested. He fertilized his pecuniary fantasy with stories of success: The Wickmans had earned $2,000 from their patch, enough to buy a dining room table. Better yet, the Lange boys had bought a four-wheeler with their profits.
We deflected Max's sales pitch for several seasons, for the same reason parents say no to horses and newspaper routes: It was bound to end up a family affair. Nevertheless, one spring, 11-year-old Max caught us with our better judgment down, and my husband, Dan, put in a half-acre of two varieties of sweet corn.
To walk a sprouting sweet-corn patch is to breathe distilled essence of optimism. The tender tips of green poking through the soil are coiled dollar bills, lining up to be plucked. With nary a weed nor a raccoon in sight, the spring air deceivingly crisp, it's hard not to count one's ears before they're husked. Half an acre, at 27,000 seeds per acre, comes to 13,500 cobs of corn, or roughly 1,000 "dozen," according to the neighborly way Iowa roadside stands count sweet corn, 13 to a sack. Max began spending his profits, mentally, on glamorous modes of transport: fishing boats, ATVs, wind surfboards, go-carts.
By mid-July, the corn was vigorous. So were the weeds. The brisk spring breeze had been replaced by a thick, humid blanket of Iowa summer. Dan found himself alone, hacking weeds with a corn knife, during sultry afternoons that Max spent poolside or fishing along the creek bank.
To be fair, Max did offer his assistance, but a sweet- corn patch is no city garden. The weeds can be as tall as a boy, as thick as his arm, and corn knives are wicked tools. We also worried about Max's edging into the adjacent eight-foot-tall field corn and getting lost. Dan weeded.
The first Saturday in August, Max and I procured two golden test ears, nearly perfect. The first corn would be ready within days, and profit was nearly at hand.
As were the raccoons. Sunday night, the masked rascals held a binge in Max's patch, ravaging the ripe half of the plot, but leaving the immature variety untouched.
We sullenly salvaged a few dozen ears, which we ate ourselves, and Max readjusted his earnings expectations: Maybe he could buy a bicycle.
The next week, as the latter half of the field came ripe, we fought back. Max baited box traps with marshmallows and we positioned radios to blare across the field at night. Our raccoon control worked. Now we had sweet corn piles of it.
What we didn't have was a street corner. This, we saw, was the hub in the wheel of fortune. Without a good street corner (preferably one with a stop sign and pull-off parking), hundreds of would-be customers merely wave and drive on by. Hundreds more don't even wave.
Nothing wilts a pile of sweet corn (not to mention the entrepreneurial spirit) faster than a 95-degree Iowa sauna. Within our first hour at the curb, Max had dropped his price to $2.50. (A skateboard would be nice.)
Each day we tried a new corner. I sat with my son under a baking sky as car after car whizzed by. We greeted the occasional customer like a long-lost relative, then wound up our sales day by giving away bags of corn to anyone we owed the slightest thanks or favor: years-ago baby-sitters, piano teachers, newspaper carriers.
Then Grandma joined the effort. Not only did she rise at dawn to help pick produce, she also boldly introduced us to the direct-marketing concept. While waiting to pick up Max from band lessons, she'd hold her head erect and walk from car to car along the line of waiting parents. A desperate grandma is a formidable creature, and ours could unload several dozen ears before Max at last sauntered from the school, swinging his trumpet case.
We heard that grocery stores sometimes would buy corn. Judging from the withered days-old mounds in their produce departments, however, we doubted they needed more. Furthermore, Max had heard they only paid $1.25 per dozen, a price he resisted as a matter of principle.
But as we neared the season's end, Max's farming father reminded him it is better to sell a crop for a pittance than to not sell it at all. We girded our pride, selected a few choice sample ears, and forged into Fareway.
Come back tomorrow, they said.
Next was Econofoods, where the stock boy led us to the back room and showed us two heaping bins of corn.
Our final shot was Hy-Vee, the largest and thus most intimidating store for an 11-year-old (and his mother).
Max introduced himself to Steve, the produce manager, stammering. Did he need any corn, by any chance, at any price? Steve gestured toward his overflowing display. Customers, not unlike the raccoons, ravage his sweet corn, he explained. They pull back a husk, then toss it back on the table, rendering half of what he buys unsaleable. He could pay only $1.50 per dozen, he said.
Max's face lit up, then fell again as Steve explained that he didn't need more corn this season. Another year, if Max contacted him before the crop came ripe, he'd schedule a purchase. We mumbled our thanks and turned to go, when Steve must have registered the small scale of our operation or the sag of a little boy's shoulders.
"Wait," he said. "How much do you have?"
"Nineteen dozen," said Max.
Steve nudged a grocery cart toward us, "Bring it in."
We unloaded our stash with giddy relief, then scurried to the counter where they cut Max his check: $28.50. With that, I decreed the sweet-corn season officially over; any late-blooming ears would be left to the raccoons.
On our way home, we swung past the bank to deposit the season's profit: a respectable $140, which Max decided to save, thereby allowing himself the continued pleasure of imagined spending. As we headed out of town, we saw a pickup truck, heaped with sweet corn, parked at a pretty good corner. We waved and drove on by.