Where 'field work' means stalking the corn

Call them the children of the corn.

For about three weeks each summer, thousands of adolescents wearing ponchos, heavy pants, and work boots wake before dawn and trudge up and down the sweltering cornfields of Midwest farms, yanking the tops off corn stalks.

Their well-timed task: to remove the pollen-bearing tassel from the corn plants designated as "female" - the majority on a given field. Detasseling prevents them from self-pollenating, and allows them instead to be pollenated by a select number of stalks with their tassels left intact, designated as "male."

The process yields the seed that will be used to grow bigger and tastier ears of corn.

Here in Nebraska - where corn plants outnumber people by about 10,000 to 1 - detasselers are revered members of the community. And their annual act of summer labor has become a cherished right of passage.

Detasseling began in the 1940s when geneticists discovered that growing corn hybrids - in which corn variety A is pollenated by variety B - produced healthier crops with larger yields.

Farmers harvesting seed corn now commonly grow four to six rows of the detasseled crop next to a row or two of a pollen-bearing breed.

The pollen is captured by the silk on each individual cob of corn on the detasseled stalks.

Machines similar to combines chop off the majority of tassels. But farmers still require a little human help to get rid of the overlooked pollen. (A few unwanted tassels could, theoretically, pollenate a full acre of crop.)

Enter the adolescent workers. They normally ranging in age from 12 to 16, and have traditionally taken to the work because no one else will. Minimum age requirements vary from 10 in South Dakota to 14 in Iowa.

But for many rural 12- and 13-year-olds, detasseling offers the best wage available.

Larry Oetting, who runs the largest detasseling operation in the country here, detasseled as a child in Missouri. He began his business in 1978 after his two sons began trolling the fields as children.

"It is certainly a tradition out here, and for anyone who lives in a farming community," says Oetting. "Kids aren't getting in trouble. It's good honest work."

Fourteen-year-old Josh Sommer came to Seward from Republic, Mo., because he couldn't find a job back home. Last year, Josh earned $800 detasseling. He spent it on two rifles and camping and fishing gear.

Sommer says he enjoys the independence of working and living away from home - including buying his own groceries. But the 12 days of work so far this summer have been grueling.

"All the corn fields are the same," says Josh. "It's just one big blur. Every day I want to stop, but I don't."

Like most of his coworkers, Josh comes to the fields well prepared. His supplies include a cooler, two jugs of water, crackers, chips, Granola bars, Power Ade mix, a Swiss Army knife, needle and thread, and baby wipes for his hands. (Some detasslers wear gloves.)

Also in tow: a dog-eared copy of "How To Stay Alive In The Woods."

Despite the gear, few of Josh's colleagues have been able to endure the summer toil. A hardy core of only 13 detasselers remain from the original group of 25 that began walking the fields two weeks ago.

Crew chief Jeff Schoettlin, a senior at Seward's Concordia College and a Marine Corps reservist, says his remaining charges have a lot of spunk.

"There are two kinds of kids. The ones that walk through the mud, and the ones that walk around it," says Mr. Schoettlin. "The ones that walk around aren't here anymore."

Avoiding mud isn't easy. Even without rain, the dew off the corn soaks the soil. Detasselers' shoes are encased in a weave of grass and dirt after their first pass through the fields.

"You learn to walk Indian-style to keep your balance," says Schoettlin.

The group of 13 "rogue" through 15 to 20 rows of corn each - about eight miles of walking by the end of the day.

The corn is often taller than the pickers. It scratches at their necks and arms. Dense with vegetation, the fields dampen any fresh breeze.

At daybreak, however, the detasselers are surprisingly spirited. Most attack the fields, yanking the greenish tassel stems with a straight, upward jerk. Others bend it 90 degrees and break it with a horizontal pull.

A distinctive popping sound, veterans hint, reveals whether the tassel was cleanly taken.

The teens take their work seriously. They have to. Company representatives check the fields over after crews pass through. If the teens fail to detassel 99.5 percent of the field's corn, they are sent back in.

"There is crew pride," says Schoettlin. "They all want to do more than the other groups."

Nebraska lawmakers' efforts to raise the detasseling age requirement from 12 to 13 failed this year, largely due to objections that detasseling often provided the best-paying work for kids who need it the most.

Kerry Butzke, a 13-year-old detasseler from nearby Staplehurst, says she has skipped work days because she's had more exciting things to do, "Like going to the county parade," she says sarcastically.

Yet Kerry will probably return for her third year of detasseling, she says, because her pay grows each year. Most detasselers start off earning minimum wage - $5.15 an hour. Their salaries can more than double, based on their experience, and hefty bonuses often kick in at the end of the year.

The legal victory notwithstanding, detasseling may be a fading tradition. In the late 1960s, scientists breeded a genetic mutation of corn that automatically sterilized its own tassel.

Farmers stopped using it when the crop started growing a dangerous fungus. But new efforts to engineer sterilized corn have already yielded some positive results. Whether new technologies phase out the detasseling tradition will largely hinge on cost, experts say.

"It will come down to economics," says Richard Vierling, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University in South Bend, Ind.

"They'll have to ask: Is it cheaper to have a bunch of kids pulling tassels or is it cheaper to go through paying for the technology?"

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