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Midwestern ritual: Detasseling proves to be unique job for youth

July 28, 2014 | 0 comments


It's 8 o'clock in the morning and many teens are enjoying the opportunity to sleep in during their summer break from school. Not the 50 or so teens who decide to do what generations of rural youngsters have done before them to earn some extra spending money.

These youth, some as young as 13, get into the designated field of the day and disappear into the green rows to start their day's work, visible only as bobbing flecks of long-sleeved colored shirts among the corn stalks.

The annual call for detasselers has been made for some 70 years. While machines have been designed to make the job easier, the manual labor of these youth is still needed to ensure the seed corn is 99.7 percent pure.

Across the country, about 100,000 people, mostly students, join what might be called a Midwestern ritual.

While the conditions aren't always the most pleasant — there are bugs, sometimes mud, often heat and the leaves of the plants are scratchy — most of them say it's a good job and many of them are willing to return summer after summer to pull off the foot-long green tassels, the ropey seed-filled growths that are generally the highest point of a corn plant. The goal is to take these tassels off the plants in certain rows to produce a yield of hybrid seed corn that will then be harvested on the cob, gently dried, treated and packaged for grain farmers to plant next year.

Several employees at the 100-year-old Spangler Seed Company, including Matt Eske, had their first experience with the business of detasseling corn. Eske's job in summer is to coordinate the crew of young workers and manage the team.

"When the harvest is complete, I put on my marketing hat," he said. "Because I see this crop all year long, and I know what is done to make sure the seed is pure, it is much easier to sell it."

Eske said listing corn detasseling on a resume is helpful in the future for these workers because any employer who understands the job recognizes this job helps to develop an admirable work ethic in these youth.

Pollination important

Seventy-five years ago, farmers saved part of their corn each fall to plant in the spring. Then they found that by planting seeds that are a cross between two different types of corn, they could grow a lot more corn. This is referred to as cross pollination — where the pollen from one variety of corn fertilizes or pollinates the silk of another variety of corn. The result is a hybrid corn.

"Timing is very important," Eske said, "and a year like this year makes it challenging because the corn in many of the fields is uneven because of all the rain early in the year."

Timing is also a challenge because they have many varieties, and each is different. Eske said John Spangler, whose grandfather established the family's first farm and seed business in Jefferson, is a true entrepreneur who constantly experimented to find a better seed to improve yield and grower income.

To him, and to his son Jeff, who runs the company with his dad, understanding the timing of the tasks involved in raising seed corn is as much an art as it is a science. It is important to know exactly when each variety will tassel and silk.

If the corn is detasseled too early, there is a risk of decreasing yield. Wait too long, and the corn plant will have started to pollinate itself, ruining the seed.

That's why corn seed growers like Spanglers take meticulous care of their fields, closely watching them in order to predict when they'll need to bring in detasselers.

Still, it's a tough call and, like all farmers, they are at the mercy of the weather.

John has always understood that when the pollen starts to fly around, the silk needs to be exposed on the plants in the next rows.

To accomplish this, most seed companies plant two male rows and then four or six female rows.

"We run an interplant system because John believes the distance for pollen to travel is shorter that way" Eske said. "We do two female rows and then one male row.

"With this system, we can grow some things that others cannot. It takes a few more acres this way, but it has worked best for us."

Manual labor

When tassels begin to appear, they go into the field with a machine to cut the tops off the female rows. A detasseling machine comes through and removes about 70 percent of the tassels, and then the young workers come through to remove any remaining tassels. Sometimes they walk through the fields, and other times they ride on a platform that carries ten workers.

The tassels that remain on the alternating rows blow through the air, landing on the silk of the detasseled corn plants. Each silk hair eventually becomes a kernel on the cob that then develops.

In order to be sold as certified seed, 99.7 percent of the tassels must be removed from the female line within a very narrow time frame.

Once all the pollen has fallen from the remaining plants, that row is cut out of the field to make nutrients and water more available to the remaining, developing corn.

Removing the tassels from the corn plants is actually the simplest part of a very complex business involving the genetics of seed corn. By the time the detasselers step into the fields, seed corn producers have already invested a great deal of time and money to develop the best seed.

"When seed corn is planted, some of the seeds, a very low percentage, are undesired," Eske said. "These kids go into the field with hoes and actually remove the undesirable plants. The process is called rouging. If the rogue corn is allowed to mature, it will contaminate (pollinate) the hybrid corn. When they walk into the field, they are able to spot the stalks that are different. Stalks are usually taller than the rest and are fatter."

New hybrids are much more vigorous and higher yielding than corn of the past. Major improvements have also been made in such traits as early maturity, disease resistance and insect tolerance.

As a result of these developments, farmers are able to raise about seven times as many bushel of corn on an acre as they once did, making corn a valuable cash crop that adds significantly to the country's economy.

Other challenges

Although the year started out wet, this has been a pretty good year for the Spanglers so far.

They had a little hail early on in the soybeans, but the corn was unharmed. While 400 of their more than 1,000 acres of cropland is set up for irrigation, they only used it once this year, just to break the crust on the ground that had been wet at the time of planting.

"Over the years, we've had corn that lodged from storm damage," Eske said. "It's really hard for a 14-year-old detasseler to sort out rows when corn is down."

As for wildlife damage, he says sandhill cranes give them the most problems. Seed used for growing seed corn is very expensive — about $600 to $800 a bag because of the special traits — so they don't appreciate the crane that pick the seeds from the row right after it is planted.

The job of the detasselers lasts only about three weeks, but if the weather permits, they usually work seven days a week.

Once that job is done, the corn cobs develop and harvesting begins in some fields as early as late August. Corn is harvested on the cob and dried at very low temperatures with lots of air.

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