Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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Farm donates tons of corn annually to the Clark County Food Bank

Bob Buker’s Hazel Dell area 10 acres has been in the family since 1883

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published:
13 Photos
Bob Buker, 89, examines an ear of corn to determine if it is ready to be harvested at him farm on a warm August evening. According to Buker, the silk on the end of the corn turns brown as the corn ripens.
Bob Buker, 89, examines an ear of corn to determine if it is ready to be harvested at him farm on a warm August evening. According to Buker, the silk on the end of the corn turns brown as the corn ripens. Zach Wilkinson/The Columbian Photo Gallery

On a warm August evening, Bob Buker slowly padded down the dirt road bisecting his field of Illinois super sweet corn.

“Here’s your all-terrain vehicle,” Clyde Christensen said as he handed Buker his walker.

The 89-year-old quickly abandoned it to stand among the stalks, examining the corn people picked and doling out agricultural knowledge to anyone who would lend an ear: Did you know that each kernel has its own corn silk? That there are male and female parts to each plant? Or that dark brown silks signal an ear of corn is ready for picking?

“That one right there is ready to go,” he said to a volunteer.

Every year, Buker donates the bulk of his corn to the Clark County Food Bank. Last year, that amounted to 7 1/2 tons and this season’s yield promises to be even bigger. But with each harvest, Buker grows older. Health issues have forced him to scale back his role, and the future of his farm is uncertain.

The historic farm located on Alki Road is in a hidden hollow just west of Hazel Dell Avenue. It’s been in the Buker family since 1883 and Bob Buker, who has a doctorate in agronomy, is its longtime owner and caretaker. He was born in the original farmhouse. The land has shrunk considerably over the years to make way for the Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway trail. Occasionally, bicyclists and runners turned their heads to ogle at the corn-picking operation underway.

Friends and neighbors visit the 10-acre farm in Vancouver several times each summer to harvest corn. Newcomers are shown the ropes. Grab the stalk with one hand and quickly pull down the ear with the other hand until it breaks off with a satisfying crunch. That’s how you pick corn.

“To an individual who’s had a series of setbacks … to get an ear of fine quality sweet corn may be the turning point to a better life or a better outlook on life. And maybe we can supply that,” Buker said. “Nobody should be denied access to a fine quality ear of corn if we can provide it. How’s that for a reason for perspiration?”

He acknowledged that he’s doing little perspiring these days. Christensen does the bulk of it.

At 59, Christensen is 30 years Buker’s junior, and takes on most of the physical tasks of managing a farm.

Their friendship started over a tree stump seven years ago. Christensen knocked on Buker’s front door, asking if he could dig out a large stump in his yard and sell the wood. As with many people Buker meets, it led to an hourslong conversation. Buker’s retirement from Ohio State University affords him the ability to donate the corn he grows and pay Christensen for work he does around the property.

Before working with Buker, Christensen didn’t know diddly-squat about corn. How to prepare the soil, plant the seed, cultivate it and harvest the final product — he learned to do it all from Buker.

“I’ve slowly gleaned years and years of information and experience from him that helped me get to the point where I can probably grow it now,” Christensen said.

Still, Buker is the brains of the operation, he emphasized. After all, Buker spent years traveling the world lending his expertise and innovations to struggling farmers.

“He lives for this,” Christensen said. “Even though he can’t do the work he can advise.”

Until recently, Buker was picking as fast as anybody.

Just two years ago, he drove out to Central Oregon on a quest for a two-row planter. Buker said he was criticized for being a man of a certain age driving down long dirt roads bent on buying a pair of planters weighing some-700 pounds.

“It doesn’t make sense, but to me it did, because now we can plant two rows that are parallel,” Buker said.

That means a better yield. And an operation that’s more automated is helpful to Buker who can’t do things like he used to.

A recent stint in the hospital was caused by a heart attack, doctors told him. They gave him the option of surgery or 30 daily pills. Not wanting to chance ending up back in a hospital bed, Buker went with the pills.

He hints at his mortality with a wry wisecrack, telling this reporter, “I only buy ripe bananas.”

Buker and his wife’s estate plan transfers the farm to their five children. What happens to it from there remains to be seen. Two of his daughters are well-off engineers. Another daughter in Seattle constructs buildings. One son went into architecture and another house remodeling. Buker’s children have forged their own paths.

Buker recalled the joy of giving his great-grandson a ride on his red diesel tractor. Where else would he get that experience besides a farm?

Christensen pointed out that farming is a dying industry and the pressure to develop farmland is constant. It’s difficult to know the future of any family asset, he mused.

This family asset happens to be a charitable but time-consuming one. Seeds were planted between May and July so the corn would ripen at different times, staggering deliveries to the food bank.

“We always test fate,” Christensen said. “We just see if you can get corn to come right before that first frost, and we usually do it.”

Buker said this corn — a particular bicolored variety developed at the University of Illinois — is notorious for not coming up early. It’s critical that when the seeds are planted they don’t drop too deep, otherwise they’ll rot in the ground. Caring for the land and the seeds just right, results in what he claims is the best, tastiest corn in Clark County.

Christensen didn’t think that was true until about five years ago when he put it to the test. He bought corn from stores across the county and did a blind taste test with a handful of people.

How to help

• Do you grow produce in Clark County and want to donate some of your crops? Visit www.clarkcountyfoodbank.org/shareyourharvest.

• Interested in volunteering at a farm to benefit the food bank? Visit www.clarkcountyfoodbank.org/farm.

• Call the food bank at 360-693-0939 for more information.

“Every time they pick Buker’s corn,” he said.

He added that Buker makes improvements to ensure the corn is just as tasty as ever and gets into the hands of needy people in Clark County.

“You do what you can do to maybe make a little difference. Bob’s made a big difference over the years and I’ve been a part of it,” Christensen said.

Christensen said as long as he has time to grow corn, he will. Buker may not buy green bananas, but he already has ideas for next year’s cornfield.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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