Thursday, July 26, 2012


I was working in the yard along the edge of the street, trying to make the place look like someone lives here in spite of the devastation to the premises wreaked by the lousy heat and drought.  I looked up to see a young lad, early teens, walking up the street  with his bandana around his neck, his lunchbox dangling from his left hand.

"Hi," I greeted him.  "Detasseling over for the day?"  "Yes," he said, "thank goodness."

A brief encounter, but as he ambled slowly on up the street, a flood of memories overwhelmed me.  Our county grows lots of corn, lots of corn.  For many years several major seed companies have produced thousands of acres of hybrid seed corn here every year.  This has, for this community, provided short-term summer employment for lots of people, including children as young as fourteen.
It is hard, miserable, grueling work.  I am not speaking from hearsay evidence.  My own children had their turns in the corn fields.  But that would be hearsay if their accounts were placed in evidence.  Many of my junior high students as well as high school students were engaged in the enterprise.

And so this happened about 1974.  The high school principal, the middle school principal, and I decided to contract a small plot so that we could gain personal experience, so that we might better understand the situation the children were dealing with, and coincidentally so that we might pick up a little extra cash for ourselves.  This would be a snap.  Only eight acres.

Dawn came, we met at the field, long sleeve shirts, long pants.  Straw hat, bandana.  Galoshes, because it had rained most of the night.  The corn was wet, soaking us thoroughly.  The leaves are sharp and walking between the narrow rows was quite unpleasant.  The mud sucked at our feet on each step.  The corn was too tall, making for a stretch to pull the tassels.  By noon, the temperature was in the nineties.  We knocked off at one and went home, only to meet in the field again at sundown to utilize daylight until it was gone.  We should have been half-finished by the time we went home for the night.  We weren't.

Daybreak.  Back at it.  By noon, the inspector was breathing down our necks.  The field is "too hot."  You've got to finish this, like yesterday!  We took our afternoon break and recruited three of our kids and one of their friends, teens, to help us.  At standard rates times four, there goes a good chunk of our future walking-around money.  But that afternoon, the company moved in with a whip detasseler, which was a pretty new and untried technology.  This went ahead of us and whacked tassels to kingdom come, but it missed many of them and left us to clean up after the machine.  And we had to pay the cost of the machine and its operator.

Another day finished the job.  The galoshes are still somewhere in that field, what little dribby-drab of money we had left after the cost of the machinery and the kids was soon gone.  But we had the detasseling experience!

I have had many other experiences with the task, both directly and tangentially, but you've probably enjoyed about all of this you can stand.


Jim said...

It was hard to come by work when I got home from college in the summer of 1987, and I went a few weeks looking. I knew I could always get a job detasseling, but I had heard the accounts and hoped to heaven I could avoid it. And then the phone rang; it was my dad's best friend, who ran the art museum at Notre Dame. His gift shop manager had gone on medical leave unexpectedly; could I pinch hit for her the rest of the summer? And so I spent the summer in air-conditioned comfort in the easiest job I've ever had.

Shelly said...

Detasseling corn and chopping cotton are things everyone should have an experience with, even if only for a day, to bring appreciation to whatever other job might be undertaken.

Secondary Roads said...

Or you could have spent time hoeing mint. It all helps build character. :)

Lin said...

I heard that a lot of the new manufactured corn doesn't require detasseling. We have friends who farm down by you and they don't do it anymore. Is that good or bad? I don't know. I know a LOT of kids make their summer money that way. Ugh.

vanilla said...

Jim, you rather fell into that one, and blessed you were, too!

Shelly, "I've never picked (chopped)cotton..."; but the detasseling was sufficient to spark that appreciation of which you write.

Chuck, need to be 80 or 100 miles farther north to get the mint experience, but derogue-ing corn fields bears some similarity to hoeing anything.

Lin, cross-breeding corn still requires detasseling, but I'm sure the lab teams are working on alternatives. Perhaps your friends have chosen not to grow seed corn. We have a lot fewer acres in seed production than we did twenty years ago.

Anonymous said...

I am very proud of myself that I knew what detasseling is - never did much of that in the Bronx...any and all farm work is WORK. (all caps, underlined and in bold with a bunch of exclamation points)

vanilla said...

Grace, you are indeed a well-rounded individual. So right you are, farm work of any kind is WORK of the kind you indicate.

Sailorcurt said...

As someone who detasseled corn for many summers during my youth, I can say with authority that it DOES build character.

It's a great way for a high school kid to earn enough during the summer to see them through the school year with money to burn.

And for me, it was a huge motivation for me to eschew the farm life and join the US Navy for a life of ease and luxury.

Relatively speaking.

vanilla said...

Curt, I believe that honest work is a better alternative for teens as opposed, say, to sitting on the courthouse wall listening to mp3s and texting their friends...who may well be right there with them.

I'm glad my kids detasseled. As for myself, perhaps I was "role modeling." *grin*

Rebecca said...

Never heard of detasseling until I met my husband, who'd spent a few years in Indiana. What does detasseling do? Why is it necessary?

Sailorcurt said...

Forgive me if I insult your intelligence. As a technical trainer by trade, sometimes I overexplain:

The object of detasseling is to create seed corn that is a hybrid mix of two different varieties of corn.

Say, for example, type 1 is drought resistant and type 2 is very high yield, by crossbreeding them and creating a hybrid we can create a new type of corn that has a combination of the traits.

The problem is, plants can pollinate themselves as well as each other, which defeats the efforts to mix the two.

So...we'll designate type 1 as the "female" corn and plant most of the field in it. Around the edges and intermixed with the "female" we also plant rows of the type 2 corn and designate it as the "male".

In order to prevent the "female" corn from pollinating itself, we have to eliminate the pollen producing part...the tassels.

The only way to do this with anything approaching 100% effectiveness is by pulling the tassels from each individual stalk of "female" corn by hand.

It is a very laborious, time consuming, monotonous task, but the rewards in the form of better crop yields and higher quality seed corn are worth it.