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Tedious Farm Task A Rite Of Passage In US Midwest - 2001-08-09

It is the hottest part of the summer in the American Midwest. That means several thousand young people are spending their days in cornfields, performing a tedious but necessary task, detasseling corn plants. Working as a detasseler is considered a right of passage in many small Midwestern towns. But, detasselers are becoming harder to find.

It is seven in the morning on another hot, humid day, and Jim Broderick of Team Corn Detasseling is quickly walking between rows of two-meter high corn in a field near the town of Kankakee, Illinois.

"When I get here and see a space I just reach down, pull the tassel out, drop it to the ground and you just keep walking along at a slow pace in the field," he said. "It takes about 15 minutes for an experienced person to go down through the field and pull out the tassels that are there."

What he is doing, detasseling, is an important part of the corn seed production process. The two types of corn in this field is being cross-bred to produce a hybrid seed that will yield a high amount of corn per hectare when it is planted next season. To make the crossbreeding successful, the tassels, or tops, have to be pulled off one type of corn plant so those plants will not pollinate themselves.

Machines do some of the work, but miss as many as half of the tassels. So, farms and seed companies hire people like 13-year old Katie Ziller to get up early in the morning and pull the remaining tassels off by hand.

"It is tiring. And it is wet. Really wet," he said.

Detasseling has been a part of life in the Midwestern United States for about the last 50 years, when farmers discovered that hybrid seeds produced far more corn than the old method of saving the best corn from one season to plant the next. Mr. Broderick says detasseling runs in many families.

"There is more than one parent who signs their child up to come out here and experience detasseling as they knew it. It is also one of the last big employers," he said. "Out of the four crews I had this year, I had just over 200 kids out in the field at one time."

Most kids say they do this for the money. Detasseling companies pay based on experience and performance. Work faster, earn more. Seventeen-year-old Jasmine Rohwedder can cover a kilometer-long row in just over 30 minutes. She is one of the fastest detasselers on this crew, and earns about $15 an hour.

"The first week, I didn't even know what a tassel was. But after you get the hang of it, you know what to look for and you can just walk through fast," she said.

This is the first year of detasseling for thirteen year old Ashley Warlow. She says the work gives her time to think, "Why am I doing this? But I just keep going because I think of all of the money I am going to get. That is what I think about in the morning."

Most detasselers are between the ages of 12 and 18. For the younger kids, this is the best way for them to earn money, since most restaurants or stores won't hire anyone under the age of 16. Mr. Broderick says detasselers are getting more difficult to find. The work is hard, and many kids don't want to do it. Also, rural populations are not growing very much, so there are not a lot of kids available to recruit.

"The other problem that comes up is once they are 16 or 17 and can drive, a lot of construction companies [hire them]. The best detasselers I had last year all have jobs this year working on construction where they are guaranteed three months of work instead of five or six weeks of work," he said.

For kids who do this work, it can be a good lesson about the importance of education. "Because they know that if they do not study and do not work hard, they will be relegated to manual labor, not only when it is hot in the summertime, but also when it is cold in the wintertime," he said. "It has inspired a number of kids to become better academically and seek jobs in air conditioning during the summer."

Detasseling is finished by early August most years, so the kids will have a few weeks to sleep late and enjoy summer before the new school year starts.

Photos by Michael Leland