My Summer of Corn: Working in the Fields of Big Ag
There’s a special weight to the air in the pre-dawn hours of a not-yet-hot, humid July day in Iowa. Wearing long sleeves and pants when lawns are scattered with cool dew and the sky is blue-gray seems sensible, but shorts and T-shirts are the only way to cope with the mugginess to come. During the summer when I was 14, however, I dressed to limit exposed skin as much as possible: arms and legs covered, a hat on my head, a bandana tied around my throat, and the Golden Gripper work gloves I’d wear later tucked into my back pocket. This is the uniform I put on before walking down to Fairfield High School, where my workday started. In addition to sandwiches, I lugged two frozen one-gallon water jugs, the plastic swelling from the slowly melting hunks of ice inside.
A few school buses sat in the parking lot of the school, with a growing crowd of similarly dressed kids hanging around them. It was still dark when we loaded up and drove off, headed for cornfields where we would walk the sometimes mile-long rows, pulling tassels off of plants, an integral step in producing hybrid seed corn.
Iowa and other corn-producing states in the Midwest have carved out exceptions to limits imposed by child labor laws. In the fall, a 14-year-old can only work part time, but between June and August, kids are allowed to work long, grueling days walking cornfields on agribusiness’s payroll. For the past three summers, Pioneer has employed around 26,000 detasselers across the Midwest. The crew I worked on, like my middle school, had one black kid—everyone else was white. Some states, including Illinois, allow children as young as 12 to work detasseling jobs.
The job, the first held by many a Midwesterner, mixes hard manual labor with a summer camp vibe. Month-long romances, colored by exhaustion, are born in neighboring corn rows; pranks are laid; fights break out, some involving nothing more than water, others punches; myths and memories and money are made. I didn't have a curfew while I was detasseling—what was the point? My friends and I didn't have the energy to stay out and cause trouble after a full day in the cornfields. But after decades of functioning as a sort of rite of passage into working life throughout the Corn Belt, new developments in biotechnology could soon make detasseling jobs obsolete.
The old adage says that corn should be knee-high by the fourth of July, but the detasseling calendar, which is pegged to a pale green spike that shoots up from the top of a corn stalk, can dictate that the season start weeks before Independence Day, when the corn is already well-over teenaged-head-high.
See, to produce a hybrid seed, the female part of the corn stalk, the part that develops into ears, needs to be pollinated by the male flower, the tassel, of another plant. One plant pollinates the other, and the resulting seed is a hybrid of the two parents. That’s the basic premise of industrial corn sex. But if each plant is pollinated by its own male tassel, hybridization won’t reliably take place. This is why the plants designated to be female are essentially castrated, first by a machine that pulls off 90 to 95 percent of tassels, and then by an army of teens who comb through the fields, finishing the job.
This was all explained to us, in brief, before we were assigned our first row. But on the job, the focus was on performance more than plant breeding: The quicker you moved, the fewer tassels you would miss, the better the crew you’d be placed on. And the better crews made more money.
We were paid a base rate of $5.15 an hour—the federal minimum wage at the time—and even with the long hours the job offered, that simple math was never a compelling reason for taking a detasseling gig. We were in it for the bonus, a nebulous chunk of cash—as little as $300, but potentially more than a grand—that would be tacked on to our checks at the end of the month-ish long season. Its calculation was a dark art that was subject to much speculation, but we knew two things for sure: The bonus money came from one big pot passed along to the contractor by Pioneer, so there were only so many ways it could be cut up. More importantly, if you quit before the season ended, your bonus would be zero.
If it wasn’t the countless miles of walking through the muggy fields that made you consider quitting, it might be the corn rash—the irritating, paper-cut-like scratches the rough edges of corn leaves inflict on any exposed skin. (There was a reason for the long sleeves and the bandanas.) When I closed my eyes during a break, before jumping into another row, I saw corn. At night, I dreamed of endless rows. And there was the ritualized abuse that comes with any kind of regimented manual labor. Get on the wrong side of a crew leader, usually a high school kid who starred on the varsity football or baseball teams (these dudes knew from hazing), and you were bound to be assigned to the worst rows, to walk the longest fields, to get called out for missing too many tassels.
When kids supervise kids, there’s a certain level of permissiveness on the job. Like the day we worked a particularly brutal acreage and one kid refused to walk back from the far side of the field to the gravel road where we all waited on the bus for a good hour. After the boy had been coaxed back, one of the more aggressive kids on the crew, Juda, walked up to him in the aisle of the bus and began to wail on him, his hands delivering a series of punches before any of the crew leaders—all of them just as furious about the delay as the boy’s assailant—broke up the fight. At the end of a long, hot day, they were ready to take a crack at someone too.
The punched boy didn’t come back the next day, and lost his bonus. Juda finished the season, but not after getting into a few other fights.
On another day, Shawn, a skinny, freckled redhead who was a year ahead of me in school, all of 15 years old, collapsed, his lungs succumbing to an asthma attack. The air was thick with dirt and humidity—and no doubt significant dose of chemicals too—an environment none too friendly to anyone with lung problems. That was his last day of detasseling, but since he had to quit due to medical reasons, he still earned a bonus. He later told me he faked the episode, preferring to spend his time skateboarding than pulling tassels.
Further proving that there’s no problem in agriculture that genetically engineering for glyphosate-resistance and applying more Roundup can’t solve, Monsanto and Pioneer are both developing new, biotech-assisted ways of producing seed corn without the help of destasseling crews.
Monsanto has something called the Roundup Hybridization System in its 2013 Research and Development Pipeline, an approach to growing hybrid seed that involves genetically engineering corn so that the entire plant is glyphosate-resistant—except for the male tassel. With the undesired tassel prone to herbicide, “Carefully researched glyphosate application rates and timings maximize glyphosate delivery to the developing male reproductive tissues, selectively eliminating male fertility and the need for manual or mechanical detasseling.” In other words, seed corn farmers will one day be able to simply blast their fields with Roundup instead of hiring hordes of kids to pull the remnant tassels.
When corn is the backdrop to your youth, it’s difficult to not have a nostalgic relationship with it—despite knowing all too well its problematic role in American agriculture and industry. Iowa at its most quintessentially beautiful is a field of glossy green corn stalks stretching out beneath a white-thunderhead filled sky, a stand of oaks hemming in the farmland on one side, the lazy curve of a gravel road on the other. When I’m back home and near a cornfield, I can’t help but pull off a tassel, separating the tightly furled spike from the stalk with a satisfying, squeaky pop. If you hold the tassel from its skyward end in one hand and lift the opposite foot, swinging the base of the corn segment in a quick arc down to the inset of your shoe, the pale white end of the tassel will break and go flying off into the distance—a good few hundred feet if you perfect the angle and the drive. The feeling of getting it just right perfectly recalls the best of my memories from that summer.
I asked Ann Leonard, a communications consultant with Pioneer Du-Pont, if the end of detaseeling jobs was imminent. She said that broad implementation of a technology similar to Monsanto’s that her company is developing is still far off. But she added, “We’ll never be without detasselers. There will always be a need for them.”