Volunteers harvest Bob Buker's corn for Clark County Food Bank

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Before there was centralized, public acreage on Northeast 78th Street that's popular with volunteers who grow tons of produce each year for the Clark County Food Bank, there was Bob Buker.

And there still is. On Wednesday morning, a couple dozen volunteers combed the cornrows at the historic Buker family farm on Alki Road, tucked just inside the Vancouver city limits, and harvested all the ripest, readiest ears. From there it was driven over to the food bank, where it'll be stored, packed and ultimately given to Clark County's neediest people.

"Bob grows the best corn in Vancouver," said Colleen Otton as she got ready to start picking. "It is delicious."

Buker, 84, was on hand to manage the labor and share the wisecracks Wednesday morning. He said he tilted toward agriculture as a career and way of life early on, after establishing an "unmatched academic record: I failed third grade. Nobody else managed to do that," he said.

Still, Buker combined book learning and dirt learning in the end, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a professor of agronomy at Ohio State University. His expertise and innovations kept him traveling all around the world to help struggling farmers in places such as China, Uganda, Somalia, and many of the post-Soviet "Stans" of central Asia.

On Wednesday morning, Buker said the same motivation that used to drive him all over the globe continues to drive his effort to keep his acreage productive.

"To help mankind where the need is desperate," he said. "Here, I'm trying to help people who are temporarily in trouble."

Year after year

A few days earlier, Buker said, volunteers delivered 3,411 pounds of his sweet corn to the food bank. On Wednesday they delivered another 2,894 pounds. "There were more volunteers than I expected," Buker said. "This project is a booming success."

And volunteers expect to continue harvesting for the next couple of weeks, according to volunteer Larry Grell. All of Buker's productive land is dedicated to growing food for charity. "Bob was doing this on his own before there was a food bank garden on 78th Street," Grell said.

Many of the volunteers who help out at Buker's farm are fellow members of two local groups: the Vancouver Rotary Club and the nearby First Presbyterian Church on upper Main Street.

"Bob does this year after year after year," said volunteer Duane Sich, who recently retired from leading the homeless drop-in center Friends of the Carpenter. "What's not to love?"

Grell emphasized that the hungry people receiving these donations "are not freeloaders. Americans work if they can." The proof, he said, is the way people who used to accept charity often turn up to volunteer their help.

Historic, hidden

When Bob Buker was a boy, he said, this dead-end road where his grandmother lived and farmed 55 acres was called Buker's Lane. Nowadays, Buker land has shrunk considerably, making way for the Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway trail. It hugs the north side of Burnt Bridge Creek in a hidden hollow just west of Hazel Dell Avenue and just below the Overlook Drive ridge.

Surrounded by canyon walls, wildflowers, horses and corn, you'd never know you're inside a city and just yards from an interstate freeway. "It's a historic farm, and it's a beautiful spot," Buker said. You can explore that history in a description at http://ext100.wsu.edu/clark/gardening/mg/heritageorchard, a website about historic local farms maintained by Washington State University Extension Clark County.

Among the surprises contained in a detailed write-up by Bob Buker himself: The original Buker brothers who came to Clark County and bought this land in 1883 were attracted because of a gold mine on the property.

Some of the volunteers who turned out Wednesday morning were pretty historic too. For example, there was 93-year-old Ray Gilbert, who showed up with smiles and Kansas corn-harvesting experience. That was a relief to Buker, who quipped that his effort would be lost without some hardy Midwesterners.

At the other end of the spectrum were Rafael and Carlos Mercado Perez, 14 and 16, who confessed that they'd probably be sleeping until noon if their mom hadn't rousted them out of bed to go pick corn.

"Pretty often we help out," Carlos said. "It has its moments."