Hand-Picking Sweet Corn at Dan D Farms in Knoxville
One morning in early June this year Dan Dennison and I sat drinking coffee at his kitchen table on his farm a few miles south of Knoxville. It was overcast and sprinkling outside, and we spoke for a while about the high winds the previous evening that had flattened corn fields north of his place and knocked out power to homes. As time passed, my attention turned to the papers in front of me, which were selections from letters he wrote to his family from Vietnam, during his tour of duty there in 1971 as a young man of 21. Among selections which detailed what involved being a good point man on patrol and the emotions of war, were longing references of home and his future, and an intense longing to return home to farm.
There may be better sweet corn than that Dan grows on Dan D farms but I’ve never tasted it. Dan’s been farming for decades, and he and his family have been selling sweet corn to the public for nearly 30 years. In that time, he’s built a local cultural tradition and brand that has few rivals in Iowa agriculture. It’s the quality of his sweet corn, but it’s also the backstory - the history and tradition. It’s also about Dan. He always has a twinkle in his eye, a mischievous grin, and a joke to tell--often about himself. One can see his humor even in the name of his farm--Dan Dennison’s Farms was christened Dan D Farms.
There are about 1,500 farms in Marion County, but most of their product goes to market in such a way that it’s more likely to wind up on tables in another country than on our own. With farmers like Dan and an increasing number of others here and elsewhere who operate CSA’s and bring produce, meat, cheese, eggs and more to local tables, food is personal. It actually means something when you can sit down to dinner and talk to your tablemates about the conversation you had with the person who had a hand in providing your fare.
I try to visit Dan in the fields during corn picking season. Every year he hires 4-6 corn pickers to pick the 35-40 acres he plants, mostly young, hardworking teenagers. Some want careers in agriculture, but he’s also had workers who wanted to be teachers, engineers, and scientists. The kids rise at dawn to pick corn by hand and also have fun working with Dan no matter how hot and humid it is, or how wet the corn. And any old timer who thinks young people don’t know how to work hard for their money and have fun at the same time should come and walk a row or two with Dan and these kids. Graduates from Dan’s corn picking school have shared with me that they treasure the life lessons they’ve learned from him. This past July when corn was ripe and I joined the crew in the field, I told Dan, “it’s a good day to pick corn.” He smiled and replied, “it’s a good day to be alive.”
When you ask Dan about his success, he attributes it to his customers, but it’s more than that. He says “We take pride in our corn. I try new varieties. I want corn that’s sweet, and holds its flavor. I take pride in the fact that I’ll never sell day old corn, and do my best to put a good product in front of people at a good price.”
Dan sells most of his corn from a wagon on the southern edge of Knoxville, although some makes its way into local grocery stores where it’s always clearly labeled “Dan D Farms Sweet Corn.” The corn arrives by 9 or 10 at the wagon where it’s shaded, and some days it’s sold out by noon. Most days it’s gone by mid-afternoon. Girls and boys work the fields, but the girl’s sell from the stand. One day in the field while the crew was taking a break I asked Dan why only girls worked at the stand. “They’re better at it,” he said. The boys grinned and nodded and the girls laughed.
I also asked Dan why they got up so early to pick, knowing that the heat probably played a role. “Sure, heat’s part of it,” he said. “You also have to pick early when the corn’s still cool from the night with the dew still on it. That way the husk keeps the corn inside cool all day until it’s ready to be cooked.”
Every year in early August, Knoxville hosts The Knoxville Nationals, the biggest sprint car race in the world. Maybe 40-50 thousand people descend upon the community for ten days. Dan sells thousands of ears to people from all over the world who specifically want his corn. He tells me they cook it at their campsites and hotel rooms, and against his advice, pack it into car trunks and suitcases to take home, and even mail it as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
Some things are hard to put into words. Some things you just know when you live in a place--like what Dan D Farms sweet corn means in our community. The closest comparison related to agriculture that I can come up with is Templeton Rye. There may be better rye, and I doubt it, but there will never be a better backstory about a brand of rye--at least to this and many Iowans. The same is true for Dan and Dan D Farms sweet corn in our community.
Sitting at his table over coffee that June day with his letters in front of me, I asked Dan if the joy I see in him every day had anything to do with the time he spent in Vietnam so many years ago. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I guess I’ve always attributed it to how my parents raised me.” He paused, then nodded. “I’ve actually never thought about it that way, but now that you’ve asked, maybe. Just maybe.”