Cuckoo Corn

The agriculture specialist drove up to the farm in his rust-speckled pickup truck, trailing a plume of dust behind him.   The farmer was sitting on the front porch, and he stood as the specialist approached and held out a hand.

“Mr. Anderson?” he asked, shaking his hand.

“Yes,” the specialist said. “You must be Mr. Jones.”

“Call me Bob,” Mr. Jones said.

“I’m Eric,” Mr. Anderson said. They shook hands again.

“Eric, thank you for being willing to come out and take a look at my problem.   I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bob said.

“No problem,” Eric said. “That’s my job. Why don’t you take me to the affected field. Is it close or will we need to drive?”

“It would be a bit of a walk. I’ll drive you out there,” Bob said.

The farmer’s pickup was sun faded but rust-free. They drove slowly through several bumpy back roads, passing fields of corn that stretched for miles in neat rows. The wind passed over the fields, and the corn rippled like bright green water.

The farmer parked next to a small pile of boulders that had been discarded there when the fields were plowed. “It’s right through here,” Bob said. “I noticed the problem last week.”

“Lead the way,” Eric said.

Eric followed Bob along the edge of the cornfield. The stalks towered above them, already carrying full ears with healthy tassels. Twenty feet from the end of the field, Bob turned down the row.

Eric followed him into the narrow tunnel between the rows of cornstalks, shaded by the tall ears of corn. In this dim twilight world, the colors seemed less vivid and outside sounds were muffled. The wind blew through again and the corn rustled loudly all around them.

Bob paused. “Here we are,” he said.

He stepped to the side, and Eric looked beyond him at the cornstalks.   The tassels were wrong. Instead of silky and droopy, the tassels were fluffy and rose like little flames above the cornhusks. Instead of spring green or golden brown, the tassels were all the colors of the rainbow.

Eric stepped forward, smiling. “Oh, how interesting. I haven’t seen a case of this for years,”

“But what is it?” Bob asked. “Will the rest of my corn catch it?”

“This is cuckoo corn. It won’t affect your current crop, but it could be a problem in the future.” Eric began to peel back the husks on a nearby ear.   “The ears aren’t edible of course,” he said.

The husks pulled back to reveal a tiny person with a somewhat large head and big smile. The little person began to squeak and wave. Its bright pink hair stuck straight up.

“How did this happen?” Bob asked. “Is it something in the soil?”

“No, like I said, this is cuckoo corn. We like to call these ears trolls,” Eric said.   He held out a hand and the troll climbed up his arm and sat on his shoulder. “They lay their eggs in ears of seed corn, and the eggs take over the corn stalks as they grow.”

“So what should I do? Is there something I can spray it with that won’t hurt the rest of the corn?” Bob looked around and sighed. “It’s mixed in throughout the field. This is the biggest patch of it.”

“You’ll have to hand pick all the ears,” Eric said.   “The good news is that they’re ripe right now. They sell well at farm stands and markets, often better than ears of regular corn.”

“If I pick every ear, they won’t be back next year?” Bob asked.

“That’s right. Just don’t peel back the husks until you’re ready to sell them,” Eric said.   “They can get out of hand pretty quickly.”

Bob glanced at the troll sitting on Eric’s shoulder.   It blew a raspberry at him.   “Right,” Bob said. “Thank you. Will you be taking that one with you?”

The pink-haired troll clutched Eric’s collar.   Eric laughed. “Sure. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Well, my wife said one of her snapdragon plants bit her,” Bob said.

Eric smiled. “Sounds interesting. Lead the way.”