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A job I never want to do again

Seed Corn Field

Seed Corn Field

I had a chance to chat with a new customer today in the Deer Creek neighborhood of Overland Park.  She found us online and she read my “meet the owner” page.  I thought you might be interested to know more about my experience detasseling corn in Iowa as a boy.  Detassling is a manual process of removing the tassels from corn plants.  This allows for cross-pollenizing of the corn plants, with goal of producing seed corn.

It was a mucky, sticky, hot, and miserable job.  In the 1980’s, if you were 14 or older, you could work in the summers on detasseling crews.  My twin brother and I worked for Lynx Seeds as soon as we were old enough.  There was money to be made!  During the summers after 8th and 9th grades, we woke up at 6:00 in the morning, ate breakfast, and drove across town to one of the junior high parking lots to meet up with our “crew”.  Multiple crews assembled behind their respective crew leaders, who were high school and college students.  Each crew boarded a school bus, and embarked on our 30 minute commute.  The bus was always at full capacity, with 3 kids per seat.  The crew leaders had a little more space; they only shared a seat with one other person.  Once we arrive at a field, we took our coolers and water jugs to the farm yard and put them under a shade tree.  This would be our “break room”.  Then we began walking the fields.

During the first couple of weeks, we didn’t detassel, we “rogued”.  The corn was planted with 1 male row (taller), and then 4 female rows (shorter).  In the female rows, and in some male rows, “rogue” corn would occasionally grow.  These rogues were noticeably taller than the surrounding corn, and were were tasked with removing them.  So each worker carried a shovel to slice off the rogue at ground level.  Each worker covered a total of 5 rows: 1 male and 4 female.  The rows were normally a quarter mile long.  After reaching the end of the row, we were to wait for the crew to assemble.  Then crew leaders would direct us to the next part of the field to complete the round.  As the weeks progressed, the corn rapidly grew, and soon the male rows were taller than we were.  The female rows were chest high at this point.  This allowed us to easily hide in the fields, which we used to our advantage.  A favorite trick was to create fake rogues by ripping off the top half of a corn plant, and then “planting it” on the top of another plant.  The appearance was a rogue in need of cutting down.  We would create a rogue in someone else’s row, and then we would dig a hole in the row in front of the rogue.  Camouflaging our booby trap was simple yet elegant:  we would knock down corn stalks to conceal the hole.  Then when an unsuspecting detasseler would walk across the field to cut down the fake rogue, he would fall into a 2 foot pit, shovel and all.  Ha ha, very funny!  Although this never led to any serious injuries, it did lead to numerous fist-fights in the parking lot after we finished for the day.

Once roguing season was complete, we went straight to detasseling.  We walked the same fields, but this time, each worker had one row.  We walked the row, pulling the tassels from each female corn plant, one by one.  The crew leaders trailed behind, checking our work, and making sure that everyone was keeping pace.  The corn at this point was about the same height as my face, and the corn leaves brushed against my face and arms every step.  During the morning, the dew was still heavy on the corn plants, and we all were soaked before 8:00.

In Iowa, it rains regularly all summer, and often the fields were muddy from the previous day’s shower.  Trudging through these fields was no easy chore.  Our company recognized this, and generously gave us one 15 minute water break during the morning.  This was unpaid, of course.  Around 11:00, we would break for lunch for 30 minutes.  Again this was unpaid.  Our days ended around 2:30, and we headed for the bus for our 30 minute return to the parking lot.  Also, this bus ride was unpaid.  The bus was always overflowing with body odor, flies, mud, and ill tempers.  Hence, the regular parking lot melees.

After my brother and I arrived home, our mom required that we take a hose shower in the yard, as we were covered in mud and dust.  Our shoes were unrecognizable, and we hosed them off.  Somehow they were dry (or dry enough) by the following morning.

I still have the 1 gallon water jug that I used in the fields.  Here’s a picture of it.   Derek with water jug

You may be wondering the pay rate for this job.  $3.35/hour; minimum wage.  I was glad to have the job.

Categories News | Tags: | Posted on December 11, 2014

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