Before the sun rises in mid-July, a dozen busloads of teenagers and their crew leaders head for the seed cornfields of Nebraska from pickup sites at Lincoln area schools. They are detasselers, and the job that awaits them must be done rain or shine.
“They start at 5 a.m., and we work in most weather conditions except lightning,” says Brent Ailes, operations manager for Ailes Detasseling. The Lincoln-based company organizes and hires detasseling crews for DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto, two of the largest seed companies in the U.S. “Nebraska in the July heat can be brutal and often the fields are wet and muddy. Many of our first-time detasselers have never been to a cornfield in their life, and this is their first job. Detasseling teaches them what it means to put in a good, honest day of hard work.”
The critical last step in producing hybrid seed corn, detasseling involves pulling off a corn plant’s tassel – the pollen- producing top part – so that a corn plant cannot pollinate itself. Machines go through the fields before detasseling crews arrive to remove a large percentage of the tassels, but the remaining tassels must be removed by hand to ensure a healthy, high-yielding crop.
“The kids are doing the work the machines missed – say, maybe that last 10 percent of tassels the machines didn’t get,” says Eric Kamler, a seed corn producer near Shickley. “It’s really about quality control. We want to make sure the seed corn is a pure product. If a female corn plant pollinates itself, that’s bad because it produces a weak seed kernel for the farmer buying the seed.”
Detasselers can be as young as 13 years old, and though there is no maximum age, most tend to be teenagers. They start out making minimum wage but can earn up to $15 per hour based on their productivity.
“Our top detasselers can make over $2,000 in just two or three short weeks, and many of them work for us four or five summers in a row,” Ailes says. “We try to create a team environment and make the experience enjoyable for them, because we know they aren’t out there because they love the conditions.”
Conditions can be so humid that rain ponchos are required to keep dry.
“The fields are comparable to a rainforest,” Kamler says.
Ailes Detasseling offers extra incentives to its workers, such as McDonald’s or movie theater gift cards.
“Our crew leaders can use them as prizes for the top workers of the day on their bus. It gives the kids some immediate satisfaction,” Ailes says. “Each crew is on the same bus for the entire detasseling season, so they create their own chants and songs. We’ve seen kids develop great relationships and make lifelong friends.”
Former detasselers often ask Ailes to be a reference for them when applying for college or a job.
“I tell people that if a kid has survived detasseling, then I have no doubt they will accomplish their goals later in life,” he says.
Seed Corn Industry
Seed corn is a niche market among farmers. Unlike yellow corn, which is grown and used primarily as a livestock feed, seed corn is grown for the purpose of providing seed.
“We’re the farmers for the farmers,” says Kamler, who produces seed corn with his father, Mike. “We plant the seeds that will become next year’s corn seeds for farmers around the world.”
In 2013, Nebraska had 223,000 acres of seed corn planted statewide. Producers such as the Kamlers grow seed corn on a contract basis for agribusiness companies.
“They deliver the seed and tell you when to plant it. The companies cover the cost of the seed and fungicide application,” Kamler says. “As farmers, we give up a lot of our independent liberties because we are contracted with them. Our job is to plant and irrigate, but they take care of all the harvesting. It’s more cost-effective for us than yellow corn.”
In September, seed corn companies use sweet corn pickers to harvest the corn, dumping the ears into wagons and later into semi trucks to be transported to a plant where they go through drying, husking and cleaning stages before being bagged as seed.
“It’s an amazing process,” Kamler says. “The nice thing for us is with seed corn, we don’t have to hire extra hands. It’s just me and my dad.”
Seed corn companies also pay detasselers, provide them with personal protective equipment and safety training, and monitor weather conditions while they are in the fields. Mat Habrock, communications manager for DuPont Pioneer’s Western Business Unit, says the industry provides economic gain for both rural and urban communities.
“We employ a large number of people in a lot of different communities. For example, because of the proximity of our seed production facilities to Lincoln and Omaha, we recruit a lot of our detasselers from those communities,” Habrock says.
Nebraska is a key part of DuPont Pioneer’s seed production strategy.
“Nebraska provides desirable growing conditions and has great availability of water, which helps us grow reliable, consistent products year in and year out,” Habrock says. “Having our seed production anchored on the I-80 corridor also allows for easy transportation of our products.”
What is the Tassel?
The tassel is the top most part of a corn plant, and it contains the pollen that allows corn plants to reproduce.
How Detasseling Works:
Modern, GPS-driven machines usually perform the first detasseling pass on a field (a “cutter” chops the tops of the corn, the “puller” uses two rollers to remove the tassel), but because stalks are variable heights, machines can only clear between 60 to 90 percent of the tassels.
The remaining tassels must be removed by hand. This process is done by simply pulling the tassel out with your hand, then throwing it on the ground.
Purpose of Detasseling:
In the simplest of terms, the ultimate purpose for detasseling is to produce a final seed product with specific traits that can be marketed by the seed corn companies. The hybridization process basically involves taking the best traits from one corn variety and cross-breeding with another variety to get the best of both varieties.
The two varieties are planted in alternating rows as the season begins. Once the plants reach a certain stage, and prior to pollination, it’s time for detasseling. The tassels are removed both mechanically and by hand from one of the varieties of corn plants. That way, when pollination does occur, the detasseled plants don’t self-pollinate and are receiving only the desired traits of the other planted variety. Just prior to harvest, the rows of corn that were not detasseled are destroyed so only hybrid seed is collected.
The extreme detail that companies take in assuring all the undesired tassels are removed gives their farmer-customers confidence they are buying the purest hybrid seed possible.