“Sweet corn is better than money,” says an Illinois farmer who uses the former to get things the latter can’t easily buy. Richard Layden’s sweet corn fetches great seats at ball games, shady McCormick Place parking spots, a prime location for the Labor Day weekend 49th Annual National Sweetcorn Festival.
“The best corn on South Halsted,” Layden says of the fresh-picked produce he and his family will sell 100 miles south of the Loop in Hoopeston, which locals call the sweet corn capital of the world, just off the intersection of Illinois Route 1 (Halsted) and Route 9 in McFarren Park. Organizers will cook 50 tons of sweet corn in an antique steam engine and distribute it free, compliments of Stokely, which operates several canning factories in the region.
“Canned corn is bigger and not nearly as flavorful as mine,” says Layden, a cheerful, talkative man. “Processors sell theirs by the ton–I sell mine by the ear. Twelve for two dollars.” Asked the cost to operate a stand at the festival, the 62-year-old man is surprised. “Oh,” he says, with a flip of his big hand, “give ’em some corn and they’re happy.”
The Vermilion County native says he’s the only fresh-market corn producer still operating near this town of 5,000. Hoopeston’s claim to fame is the invention of the machine that puts lids on cans. The nickname of the high school’s teams is Corn Jerkers; some 12,000 acres of sweet corn are cultivated in the area, almost all under contract with canners.
Farmers, Layden explains, don’t want to worry about the daily demands of customers at the driveway, deliveries to grocery stores, or staggered plantings and harvests. Layden makes 21 plantings on 22 acres in the spring, then harvests two rows each day of the 50-day session. But he says that leaves plenty of time for raising feed corn and soybeans.
The family farm is northwest of Hoopeston, two mile west of Route 1. On a recent Saturday afternoon a wagon full of bright green ears of corn stood at the end of the driveway. Layden’s six-year-old grandson James was handling the occasional retail trade, while Layden headed into his fields, jerking ears off the stalks and handing them around. The corn was as sweet and juicy as a peach. “I only guarantee one, and then your stomach is on its own,” he said, munching a second cob of creamy yellow kernels. Corn milk and silk ran down his chin.
Layden first realized there was a market for Illinois sweet corn in the 1950s, when a stint in the Air Force took him far from home. (In 1954 he was one of the first 300 American troops sent to Vietnam, and made one B-26 run in support of the French colonial forces, though he only dropped leaflets.) While he was a flight engineer touring nationwide, he stopped in southern Illinois, picked up a bushel of corn, and transported it 2,000 miles to his base in Arizona. The airmen loved it.
Layden returned to farming. He and his wife, Catherine, whom he met on a cattle-buying trip to Wyoming, have seven children. The family raised feed corn, soybeans, and sweet corn for processing until 1967, when a son broke his arm. In the waiting room of an orthopedic surgeon’s office in Champaign, Layden struck up a conversation with a local grocery store’s produce buyer, who said he needed sweet corn. Layden brought some to Champaign on the next visit to the doctor. He entered the retail market in 1968 and quickly earned a reputation for his corn.
“One time I called a man I knew in the Cubs ticket office and asked how tickets were this year,” Layden says. “‘How’s the sweet corn this year?’ he asked. I said, ‘Good.’ He said, ‘Good tickets.’ We sat in the first row behind the Cubs dugout.”
Remembering the taste of great sweet corn at a Democratic Party golf outing, a congressional aide recommended that Layden be one of the farmers to meet Jimmy Carter when he visited Springfield in 1980. “There were three farmers, a few folks from the farm press, and a few local agribusinessmen,” Layden recalls. “We met the night before and chose this agricultural communications specialist from the university as our spokesman. He was going to talk to the president during this 15-minute session over coffee. This fellow froze up and said nothing. So I said, ‘Mr. President, I wanted to bring you some asparagus today, but the security men wouldn’t let me.’ Carter was disappointed. He said he loves fresh asparagus. I asked how often he farms. He said he didn’t have much time for farming but likes to get on a tractor when he goes home to Georgia. I told him, ‘We’ve had a wet spring, but I’m going into the fields this afternoon. If you want to come back to my farm, you can help me.'”
Carter didn’t make it, but several months later Layden and his wife were invited to a breakfast for Vice President Walter Mondale. “I said ‘Mr. Vice President, I wanted to bring you some sweet corn, but your security men wouldn’t let me.’ Mondale said he hadn’t tasted fresh sweet corn since he was a kid. I told him I could send him some. He called over his press aide, a woman named Becky, and asked her to arrange it. She looked at me and rolled her eyes. She thought I was kidding. I said no, my mother-in-law was flying to Washington National the next day and could deliver the corn. To get it on the plane we gave two bags to the flight crew, and then had three bags delivered to the White House. Becky called that night, said everyone was enjoying my sweet corn, and that she’d be sure to call if they came back to the Danville area.”
Layden was the only farmer at the 1985 news conference when Willie Nelson and John Cougar Mellencamp kicked off their Farm Aid concerts. He’d delivered some corn to the University of Illinois football team, watched them practice, and happened to see a commotion inside the stadium. Soon he was standing next to the musicians, smiling for the cameras. “I couldn’t remember Willie Nelson’s name,” he says. “So when I tried explaining I was late getting home, all I could tell my wife and sister-in-law was that I would be on TV that night with somebody famous.”
Though Layden has long made his living growing the real thing, he now hopes to branch into selling the manufactured. A couple of weeks ago he was at the National Hardware Show at McCormick Place, trying to see if there was a market for the corn-shaped telephones and mailboxes he wants to distribute, handing out business cards offering “Anything of Corn.” He was the only conventioneer among 70,000 wearing blue bib overalls.
The sweet corn festival hours are 5 PM to 11 PM Friday, 6 AM to 11 PM Saturday, 8 AM to 11 PM Sunday, and 8 AM to 9 PM Monday. Call 217-283-7873.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tony Maine.