Maize Fields

The corn was thick in the air as we walked up to Amigos' maize field. Like a display of fireworks, the ears hit their peak and gradually descended, each at a different moment.

It was harvesting day for Amigos' maize (corn) and all the jovenes, or teenaged, boys at the hogar had been enlisted to help. The 20 of them worked their way in a pack up and down the field, a row at a time. The dried out ears had to be pulled off and then catapulted to the nearest of several large piles that had been cleared out in the midst of the stalks. In nearly two acres of corn there were five or six piles, and that's why the corn flew through the sky at such a great height. It's also why, despite the heat, several of the boys seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Maize is what we gringos know as yellow corn, several months later. At the point where sweet corn would be ready to harvest, the stalks are doubled over and allowed to dry out for several more weeks. Once harvested, the hard, dry maize kernels are ready to be ground into the flour that constitutes the tortillas eaten at every meal - two tortillas a person, breakfast, lunch and dinner. The maize we harvested that day, in grains, weighed 4,500 pounds, enough for six months worth of tortillas here at the hogar.
Beginning at 8 a.m., the boys and other employees of Amigos' agricultural program, Agro as it's referred to here, were at work pulling the brown, crinkly maize cobs off of doubled-over, waist-high stalks. The sun was fiercely strong by 9 a.m. and the work is best done in long pants and sleeves, since the dried stalks are prickly and scratchy, sometimes dangerously sharp, and lots of creatures (read snakes) like to live in the field. 

It's unsurprising that among the-high schoolers, there were those who didn't relish the hard work. What's more surprising is that some of them did. When I asked one of them why, he said throwing the ears the distance to the piles was fun, and that he liked seeing how far he could throw. Then he gave a reason I didn't expect. He said he also liked walking from plant to plant, pulling the corn off the stalks. To me, a first-time maize harvester, this seemed like the least fun part of the job. My legs and arms were scratched and itchy and I was constantly worried about what insect I would see next crawling out of a corn ear. Sweat was pouring down my face and I had a bloody gash on one hand from an especially sharp stalk. Harvesting maize is brutally hard work and that's the daily reality for many Honduran farmers, one that really struck me in the field. But this kid also saw the beauty in the process. He was able, even in a long-sleeved shirt drenched in sweat, to appreciate the kind of satisfaction harvesting your own food can bring.

Amigos uses about eight acres of farmland. Currently the hogar produces all its own milk, chicken, maize, and beans. Beans will be planted next in the same field as the maize. There are two harvests a year for both crops and each plant replenishes the soil for the next in a beautiful, ageless cycle. The boys at the hogar who work in the agro program are learning about a crop and a cycle that has been a staple in the lives of Hondurans for generations. I learned a saying in my first week here that is catchy in Spanish: Sin maíz, no hay país, which basically translates to, the country falls apart without maize.

We walked back from the field dehydrated and exhausted, at least I was, but also on a strange sort of high, the kind that comes from doing a hard job through to the end. The boys were making whooping noises for no reason, giddily laughing. The tortillas at lunch that day didn't taste quite the same.