|In addition to raising sweet corn, Chester “Chet” Esau and his wife, Carol, raised five children and have 14 grandchildren. The Wade Knox Children’s Advocacy Center in Lonoke is again selling their corn for a fundraiser.|
Leader staff writer
It’s hard to imagine but farming didn’t come easy to Chester “Chet” Esau because now his name is nearly synonymous with Arkansas sweet corn, and during corn-picking season, people drive for hours just to grab a few bags of the Esau’s “Incredible” sweet corn for themselves and their friends.
Like the Bradley County Pink Tomato, which is FedEx-ed all around the state and the country, Esau’s sweet corn also has its roots in Southeast Arkansas and is almost as famous.
But that wasn’t always true.
Before moving to Dumas, where Esau leads the Three Rivers Mennonite Congregation church, Esau struggled as a farmer, first in Louisiana and then later in Arkansas.
BUY LOCALLY TO SUPPORT A GOOD CAUSE
For the past five years, folks have lined up at the Wade Knox Children’s Advocacy Center in Lonoke to buy a bag or two of Esau’s Incredible Sweet Corn.
It’s not surprising.
Karen James, Wade Knox Children’s Advocacy Center director, says about the first year they sold Esau’s corn, “We did it as a fluke. It started with a volunteer (J.B. Ketchum), who had the idea to just see if it would work,”
James doesn’t remember how many bags of corn, stuffed full with 72 ears, they sold that first year, but now they reserve 1,000 bags a season—that’s about 72,000 ears—to sell at $25 a bag, unless it’s shucked, then the price goes up to $35.
Esau says, “We’re happy with our relationship with them and we support their cause because they are working with children that need help.”
But Esau, who is 67, says because of recent storms, the Incredible variety is in short supply. But their new “Bi-Color Triple Sweet” variety is available and he promises, “You will not be disappointed.”
The popularity of the corn “has grown over the years,” and these days, James says, “It’s our largest fundraiser.”
She says for her organization and the people who buy the corn, “It’s a good fit.”
“The corn is the best and picked the morning we pick it up, and she adds it’s hand-graded, there are no worms, and the ears are full of complete kennels from base to tip.
It’s not too late to order Esau’s Sweet Corn at $25 a bag unshucked through the Wade Knox Children’s Advocacy Center at 1835 Southwest Front Street, Lonoke. The two remaining dates are July 15 and July 22, both Fridays.
Call 1.501-676-2552 to order.
Esau is now semi-retired. He was born in 1949, grew up on a dairy farm near DeRidder, La., so it’s not surprising that farming’s in his blood but while still a teenager, he felt God’s calling to the ministry in his heart.
In 1972, he married Carol Johnson and as a Holdeman Mennonite (also known as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite) minister, he was expected to feed his family. The church doesn’t pay their ministers and they’re expected to work a day job.
During the 1970s and 1980s in Louisiana, Esau worked hard, but like Job in the Bible, who suffered and survived numerous disasters, it seemed each year, God stepped in.
Esau tried growing soybeans, but lost 400 acres to too many nematodes and too little rain — not to mention losing a small fortune.
He didn’t do any better with milk cows.
“To make a long story short and a sad story less sad, I’ll just say that four years after we started, we closed the dairy,” Esau says.
He planted peaches, but cold, wet weather and disease ruined the fruits of his labor. Although he had some luck with 10 acres of sweet corn, it seemed God threw up a roadblock at Esau’s every turn of the tractor.
In order to feed his young kids, he sold the vegetables that he grew at a small roadside stand and built wooden mobile home steps that he sold to Lowe’s Companies, Inc., but still he says, “We were poor…No ice cream, no soda pop and no extras at all.”
The family always hoped the next year would be better but it wasn’t.
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
Then in 1990, the opportunity to lead a church in Dumas opened up and Esau jumped at the chance to start a congregation in Arkansas.
Looking back, both Carol and Chester Esau agree that if they had succeeded in DeRidder, they might not have decided to move to Dumas.
“…No matter what we tried, it didn’t work,” Esau says. On the other hand, he adds, “If we had been comfortable there, I doubt we would have left.”
So with a prayer on their lips and hope in their hearts, Esau and his wife packed up their belongings and their five kids, the oldest was then 16, and drove an old GMC pickup truck—Esau remembers seeing the road below through a hole in the floorboard and says there were wires sticking out of the truck’s tires’ tread—to Arkansas.
He says the couple had faith that the old truck would make the trip, and it did.
In order to put food on the table when first arriving in Dumas, Esau did dirt work and planted a few acres of a variety of sweet corn named “Incredible,” which had done well for him in Louisiana. And for many, the name says it all.
The couple nurtured, harvested and readied the 20 acres of corn for sale, and back then, he was up early to take his corn to farmers’ markets.
Esau says, “It was a struggle. We worked daylight to dark.”
It was a slow grow at first but Esau persisted.
He says, “It was very difficult the first four or five years, but the thing that encouraged us was that the market was good.”
FAST FORWARD A FEW YEARS
By 2000, Esau’s sweet corn was becoming a known and sought after commodity. His business thrived on word-of-mouth and a big sign on U.S. Highway 65 South, and his original few acres slowly grew into 160 acres. Now, on a good year, Esau produces about 30,000 bags of corn—that’s about 2.16 million ears.
And no more early mornings to area markets, these days folks line up along the dirt road leading to his farm to pick up their pre-ordered corn.
Wanda Bateman of Pine Bluff is a big Esau corn fan and says the quality is topnotch.
“You can’t find a better ear of corn anywhere,” she says.
Each year, Esau plants corn at 30 day intervals so that he’s harvesting corn from June until late July.
That’s about 40 days and nights of hard harvest work, he says. Although most growers pack 60 ears into a bushel, Esau crowds an extra 12 ears for $18 but still that doesn’t explain why people would drive from every corner of Arkansas, from Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois or Louisiana just to put Esau’s corn on their Sunday table.
Pine Bluff Produce Shed owner Jerry Tomboli says Esau’s sweet corn keeps his customers coming back until mid-summer.
“It sells well and goes fast,” he says.
Daniel Newswanger, owner of Newswanger’s Produce & Garden Center north of Dumas sells as many as 30 bags a day at his store on U.S. Highway 65 near Dumas.
Terri Roberts of North Little Rock is also a big fan and says she can’t wait until the sweet corn is ready for harvest.
“It’s amazing…It’s so juicy and sweet,” she says.
Southeast Arkansas has proved a great fit for the Esau family. Of course, it was hard to leave Louisiana, but Esau says, “Arkansas has been good to us. We have a fulfilling life here.”
During the quarter century or so that Chester and Carol Esau have been living in southeast Arkansas, the Three Rivers Mennonite Congregation church he helped start and pastors has grown to about 140 baptized members. A few years ago, the congregation built a new church and school.
As well, the Esau children are grown up and Chester and Carol Esau now have 14 grandchildren.
And in addition to all that, Esau turned a few acres of “Incredible” corn into a recognizable Arkansas brand.