One of the summer jobs that is a right of passage for many Iowa teens is now underway after a slow start due to the wet spring. Seed corn companies hire thousands of workers — mostly teenagers — to pull the tassel off the top of select corn plants to control the plant breeding and produce the coveted hybrids.
DuPont Pioneer has five production facilities across Iowa including one in Grundy County near Reinbeck. Field safety technician Dale Wambold greets the busloads of detasslers to make sure they’re ready for the day. “We provide them with gloves, we provide them with safety goggles, those kinds of things. We haven’t required it yet, but we highly recommend that kids wear high-topped shoes — because these fields are very uneven out her and there could be a chance that somebody could twist an ankle or something like that,” Wambold says.
The minimum age to detassel is 14, but many crew leaders who started as teens are now in their 50s and 60s. Don Sullivan teaches eighth grade science during the school year in Waterloo, this is his 39th year detasseling. Zimmerman says his job starts the night before as he looks at his spread sheet to see who is going to show up.
“And then I organize them into groups so that when we hit the field we are not just a mad mob, so there’s some kind of organization so we don’t waste a lot of time,” Sullivan says. He’s seen a lot of changes through the years in the way things are done.
“When I first started, there were not a lot of big contractors, you had little contractors out doing small acres and then gradually over time it grew to be bigger and bigger contractors hiring more and more workers,” Sullivan says. “And then a lot of things changed in the sense of providing transportation for us, everybody rides the bus. And then more recently, the emphasis on taking care of the workers.”
Detasseling is manual labor and you are in a farm field where there is dew in the morning, bugs, stifling heat and the danger of sunburn. Twenty-one-year-old MacKenzie McLaughlin is a seven-year veteran detasseller, who says despite the tough nature of the work, the financial reward keeps her coming back.
“It’s a lot of walking. It is really hard on your body, but even though I wake up really early, I am done before most of them even go to work. I have the rest of my day, and it really does make you appreciate every other job that you do,” McLaughlin says.
The importance of doing the job right can mean thousands of dollars for the seed corn companies and eventually for the farmers who buy it. A recent study by Iowa State University found that the seed alone costs nearly 109 dollars an acre and that doesn’t include fuel or fertilizer.
ReinbecK production facility manager Colby Entriken says even with all the advanced technology available in other agriculture sectors, using people is the best way to go. He says they have to make sure they don’t have any outcrosses or impurities and that takes the human hand and detasseling crews to get that right.
Entriken says the crews have for the most part been able to rearranged schedules to allow for some of the workers who need to leave early for camps or to head back to school. He expects the work will wrap in mid August.