SQJ Taipei

Mr. & Mrs. SQJ… 4 kids… several fish… this is our life…

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A Midwest Rite of Passage

September 19th, 2007 · 6 Comments

A few days ago, I mentioned detasseling in my post about Nebraska ag products being sold to Taiwan.

I’m sure the internets are all buzzing about detasseling now… so I’ll fill you in.

It all started back in the 1940’s. Scientists figured out that corn hybrids were the way to go.

The blending of different variations of corn can result in different tastes, better yields, more hardy plants, etc. It is used in all kinds of agriculture, but Nebraska is all about the corn my friends.

My dad was a teacher… so… summers off. When I was only a young cornhusker… I remember dad would paint houses in the summers for a little extra cash… and for the adventure, I suppose.

Only one year, my dad was not going to paint, but was going to help run a detasseling crew. I remember having 3 questions:

  1. What the heck is a detasseling crew?
  2. Why does dad go to work before the sun does?
  3. Why is there a big yellow schoolbus parked in our driveway?

Answers:

What is detasseling?

Technically, detasseling is the act of removing the pollen-producing tassel from a corn (maize) plant. (Thank you wikipedia)

Even people in LA probably know that corn is planted in rows. Here’s the deal… when trying to hybridize… the corn is planted strategically to maximize the odds of cross pollination. Did you know there is male corn and female corn? If you want to know more about corn anatomy (and you know you do) click here. Anyway… the corn was usually planted 2 rows of male corn to every 8 of female. So your field would look like this.

MFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFM
MFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFM
MFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFM
MFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFM
MFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFM
MFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFMMFFFFFFFFM

and the field will usually go on for about 1/2 mile and sometimes there were fields with mile long rows. I am not joking.

Make sense?

The detasseler’s job is to walk the female rows and pull the tassels off the tops of the corn plants. A properly pulled tassel (rather than one which is broken off) will result in an opening in the top of the plant which makes it easier for fertilization to take place. Pretty cool really.

 

Why go to work so early? Why a schoolbus?

Besides the fact that midwesterners have a built in preference for suffering, it is because the fields are freakin’ crazy hot and the work is hard and it is crazy to be in a cornfield all afternoon.

Where I was from… there was absolutely no better way for a teenager to make money than to detassel. However, most kids didn’t find the money worth the absolutely insane conditions of the job. Which included:

  • Make lunch the night before and freeze some pig blocks of ice (margarine tubs work well)
  • Up at like 4AM and put on overalls… fill cooler with ice and water… grab lunch… meet at a school… get on the bus… try to sleep while riding to the fields
  • get off the bus in the middle of nowhere
  • put on trucker hat (this was before they were cool)
  • put bandana around neck
  • put on gloves
  • start walking the rows and get totally soaked from dew in 10 seconds
  • get to the end of the row and turn around and go back the other way in another row
  • get a drink… peel off one layer of clothes (usually a jacket)… make fun of the slow kids
  • go back in the field
  • get a drink… peel off another layer (usually a flannel shirt)… chase the slow kids around
  • go back in the field… get drink… chase (repeat several times)
  • eat lunch… make fun of the kids who are crying because they are slow and you were chasing them
  • go back in field until crew leader is ready to leave
  • eat bugs and make fun of kids on the bus ride home
  • pray for the crew leader to stay awake while driving
  • feel a little sorry for the slow kids who get fired that day
  • be kinda happy that the slow kids got fired because you know that means more work for you
  • more work = more money

So… there it is.

The detasseling season runs for about 3 weeks… and the field is only considered clean when at least 99.5% of the tassels are pulled… often times higher.

 

I don’t remember how much money I made, but it was significant for a teenager. I also got to lead some teams as the summer went on which was good for lessons in leadership and motivation. I had to stop making fun of the slow kids then, and find ways to increase their speed and accuracy. The best part? Besides the money of course…

Easy…

occasionally getting to drive the detasseling tractor. It had arms that stuck out to each side and baskets for the detasselers to stand in… we drove it over the top of the male rows and the arms stretched out over the female rows. We always had to put the most athletic people in the outside baskets because those outside baskets could really get hoppin’ when you drove over the irrigation ruts. I’ve driven a lot of vehicles in my life… and those tractors were one of the highlights.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures from my detasseling days… but here are a few I found on the web… with links to the sites they come from.

Tags: Family · General · Nebraska

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim // Sep 20, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    I detasseled for a season back in Waverly so I can relate. I remember really well what it’s like to feel “soggy” for hours, especially on days when it rained.

  • 2 Shelby // Sep 21, 2007 at 4:34 am

    I will never forget the smell (corn, sweat, mud all mixed together)
    What fond memories!!!!

  • 3 Sandy // Sep 21, 2007 at 5:28 am

    I have no personal experience with this, but some of my classmates in MO did this each summer. Thankfully, my dad only grew alfafa for our dairy farm; no corn fields to detassle. This was educational ;).

  • 4 Bro // Sep 26, 2007 at 11:42 am

    A little late, but I think its funny you mention this subject. I was just telling someone the other day I detasseld corn and they had no idea. After explaining it they were just like “WHY”. It’s all about the Benjamins when you 14-15 years old. I did it for years and acyually enjoyed it. Hard to believe that these days we can’t get kids off there @sses to do anything. Who wouldn’t like playing in the corn for 10 hours a day in the mud and especially making fun of the other kids? Thanks for the memories.

  • 5 Mr. SQJ // Sep 26, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    @Bro
    I’m glad you saw that post and cool that it was just after you talked to somebody about it. I’m sure it seems totally nuts to people outside of the corn belt.
    I’m with you, though… those were great times. The money was good and it actually ended up being a lot of fun.
    Kids today seem to just want to play xbox, etc and have everything handed to them.

  • 6 Eating Some Bugs // May 12, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    […] ago… on the detasseling crew… we’d eat bugs (mostly box-elder bugs) once in a while as part of our mind game […]