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Detasseling, a Midwest Rite Of Passage, Faces Extinction

ELLEN BYRON / Wall Street Journal 9aug02

Denver attorney Jonathon Bergman has his share of 12-hour days, weekends in the office and cross-country business travel. But he says the hardest work he ever did was a teenage summer job as a corn detasseler.

"Sure, preparing a closing argument at 1 a.m. isn't easy, but I would choose that over detasseling any day," says the 36-year-old Mr. Bergman.

Growing up in Nebraska, where it's said that corn plants outnumber people by about 100,000 to one, Mr. Bergman was one of the thousands of teenagers throughout the Midwest who each summer engage in this now-waning rite of passage.

detasseling corn

Corn detasseling is the crucial last step in producing hybrid corn seed. It involves removing the pollen-producing top part of the plant, the tassel, so the corn can't pollinate itself. Instead, pollen from another variety of corn grown in the same field is carried by the wind, pollinating the detasseled corn. The result is corn that bears the genetic characteristics of both varieties and can produce healthier crops with higher yields. Despite technological advances in agriculture, detasseling is still a task that for the most part is done by hand.

The detasseling season lasts only about 20 days beginning in mid-July and, because it's usually minimum-wage work, it doesn't attract many migrant workers. But teenagers are drawn to the fast cash they can make, sometimes $4,000 a season. About 100,000 teenagers in the U.S. do this work each summer, according to estimates by seed companies and detasseling contractors.

Parents like the lessons their children learn in making a hard-earned dollar. Indeed, many fathers and mothers did their turn at this work themselves, and see it as an important challenge to be faced during their children's formative years. Larry Oetting, the detasseling contractor in Seward, Neb., who hired Mr. Bergman when he was a teenager, says he also put his own kids to work as detasselers. "You know it's hard, but it builds character, too," he says.

"I was the youngest of six kids, and no one thought I could do it," says Robin Young-Walters, a 24-year-old graphic designer in Decatur, Ill. "I remember the money was good, but I don't remember that being the most important thing. It was more about having everyone else know I survived."

But the tradition of detasseling could be coming to an end. Seed companies are developing ways to make wider use of what's called "male-sterile corn" -- corn whose tassel doesn't produce pollen, thereby eliminating the need for detasselers. It's planted next to a corn variety that is able to pollinate, so cross-pollination can be achieved more efficiently.

A DuPont Co. subsidiary, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., the world's largest seed company, employed about 35,000 detasselers in the U.S. last summer. It says that widespread use of male-sterile corn is one of its major priorities. "Next to what we pay farmers to contract their land for growing, the biggest cost to us is detasseling," says Dean Oestreich, Pioneer's vice president of supply management.

Saying goodbye to tradition won't be easy. "It would be a real loss not to have detasseling in the summer," says Nathan Raabe, 21, a junior at Concordia University, in Seward, who completed his ninth detasseling season this year. "It's a ritual, just like high-school football games on a Friday night."

Detasseling began in the 1940s, when geneticists discovered the benefits of hybrid corn. Using hybrids also improves the taste -- and the sales -- of sweet corn, which is the type most people are accustomed to eating. Americans on average ate about 9.4 pounds of fresh corn-on-the-cob last year, up 2% from the year before, according to Gary Lucier, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Though detasseling machines are in wide use, the height variation of corn plants ensures that no machine can completely detassel a field without the help of a human hand. Since just a few unwanted tassels could pollinate, and therefore ruin, a field of hybrid corn, seed companies producing hybrids insist on detasseling perfection.

So the institution of teenage detasseling lives on. Days are spent walking down rows of corn while constantly reaching to yank the tassels from the top of the 5-to-8-foot-tall plants. A row of corn is usually a half-mile long and has 3,000 to 4,000 plants. A detasseler will cover about 15 to 20 rows a day, or between eight and 10 miles. That's about 45,000 to 80,000 plants.

Looking back at his youth, Mr. Bergman recalls with pride what is pretty much the universal experience of the corn detasseler:

"You get up before the sun comes up, meet at the high school and get on the yellow school bus that takes you to the field. You know that your first 10 steps into the corn are going to be anything but pleasant because it's full of dew. You're wet head-to-toe no matter what you're wearing. The corn is tall, you're walking through mud and engaged in repetitive physical exertion for the next 10 hours. In the morning, it's wet and chilly. By 10 a.m., steam is rising from the field. By noon it's darn hot, and by three, it's extremely hot and you're exhausted."

Andrew Schiessl, 16 years old and 6 feet tall, is familiar with these conditions. He has detasseled the past four summers near Seward. Moving swiftly down a row of corn as tall as he is, he pulls tassels hand over hand at a steady, concentrated pace. After five minutes in the field, corn leaves wet from the night before have soaked his clothes. "Mud is absolutely the worst thing out here," he says, glancing down at his sneakers. "It really slows you down."

Despite the discomforts, if Mr. Schiessl has children one day, he wants them to detassel corn, too, he says, so they'll know what it's like. "It's hard to keep going sometimes."

Detasselers all wear pretty much the same uniform at work. Gloves with rubber grips protect the hands, hats guard against sunburn. And despite the heat, nearly everyone wears a bandana around the neck, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, all to avoid the detasseler's worst nightmare: corn rash.

"Oh, I have it on my legs, and I don't think it's going away anytime soon," says Robb Stewardson, 20, a junior at Doane College, in Crete, Neb., who is detasseling for the first time this summer. He wore shorts the first few days and is now suffering the irritation caused by leaves of corn brushing against bare skin. "It looks and feels like the worst sunburn you ever had, but it's a rash that's everywhere."

Mothers of corn detasselers are sometimes known as "corn moms," according to Deborah Sloup, whose three children -- now 15, 18 and 20 -- have grown up detasseling in Seward. Two of them just completed another season. "A corn mom cheerfully gets up at 4 a.m. and makes sure everybody gets out of bed. I always make their lunches, and I always pack their favorite food because they've earned it. When they come home, I tell them to just drop their stuff outside, and I take care of it. I spray everything with a hose first, to get the mud off. At night I give a lot of tea and sympathy -- and a lot of back rubs."

The dinner menu of Ms. Sloup's household changes during detasseling time, too. "The night before the season starts we have corn, since I know they won't be wanting it for a while."

Sandra Pomerenke, who detasseled for two summers while in college, now proudly sees her 12-year-old son, Micah, off to the fields each morning, "We really want our children to learn what the value of money is," she says. "We want them to learn that money doesn't grow on trees, and you have to work hard in this world." Micah hopes to earn about $1,300 this summer. After agreeing with his parents that he'll tithe 10% of his earnings to the Lutheran church and put some money in a savings account, he plans to buy a PlayStation2 and some new golf clubs.

With these goals in mind, Micah is able to get through the long days spent in the fields. "When I close my eyes at night, all I see is corn. You just see corn all the time."

Mr. Schiessl observes that the work has a unique odor about it. "There's a distinct smell to detasseling, kind of like a wet shirt left out all day," he says. But the scent is sweet, too. "I smell that and I know I'm going to be making money."

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