Detasseling is a “Rite of Passage” Promising “Fun, Freedom & Money”
By Bob Zeni
“Light My Fire,” played on WLS as me and five other guys jabbered about money and girls. We were stuffed into a station wagon on our way to Illiopolis, Illinois to the fields of Bear Hybrid, a seed company in Decatur where we lived. Steve Shuff, our 18-year-old crew chief, was driving us to our first grown-up job – detasseling corn.
It was the chance of a lifetime for a 14-year-old in 1967. I was too rambunctious to stay home. Too unruly to be a caddy or lifeguard. Too broke to while away the day at Perry’s or the Shore, the diners in our neighborhood. Too indolent to walk uptown for a movie at the Avon or the Lincoln. Too cool to ride my bike. Too young to get a driver’s license. Too old to spend a morning at any of Decatur’s many parks playing tetherball or circle ball (a shrunken, cutthroat version of foursquare) or doing kiddie crafts like popsicle stick art or weaving bondoogle; or an afternoon getting knocked around the basketball court by high school seniors, many of whom when we played shirts and skins, were only a couple hairs short of a gorilla.
We babbled about the ways we were going to spend our wages – $1 an hour. And traded fantasies about how we’d have our way with the girls from small towns on other crews. We were big-city (Decatur population: 78,000), street-smart guys whose sophistication would no doubt attract the hicksville chicks. We’d heard they detasseled and worked on their tans at the same time by going topless. To us, a sure sign they were fast, loose and wanted it.
We watched the sun rise, revealing innumerable rows of corn flowing to the horizon. Mesmerized by the monotony, our enthusiasm evaporated. The heat of our bodies crammed together without air conditioning lulled us into a collective stupor.
We were jolted awake when Steve braked hard. He’d found our assigned field. Spurred by dreams of wealth and conquest, we tumbled out of the car, sprinting to the starting area. The air was humid and cool. The company line boss stood waiting, hands on his hips.
55 years later, kids from farms, small towns and mid-size cities in the Midwest still descend on cornfields like swarms of locust. Detasseling is the first bona fide job for many of them. Media coverage invariably calls it a “rite of passage.”
They still hear about the job from friends. Seed companies still advertise. But now sites like Indeed and Ziprecruiter list openings. And a network of detasseler wranglers have sprung up that target teens. Their websites pitch the joys of employment with minimal adult supervision. Videos hosted by perky, wholesome women feature interviews with attractive, sincere teenagers gushing with pride. Other videos depict team-building exercises led by youthful and fun-loving (yet responsible) crew chiefs.
The legal minimum age for agricultural employment in Illinois is 10 years old; in Indiana, 12; Iowa, 14 (12 for migratory workers); Michigan, 13; Minnesota, 12; Ohio, 14, and Wisconsin, 12. In Pennsylvania, agricultural workers are exempt from child labor laws. The sites emphasize the unique opportunity for youngsters to make new friends, work out of doors and take home good money – $10 to $15 an hour. Two 15-minute breaks are paid. Lunch break isn’t.
The sites state that workers must have: Long sleeved shirt and long pants, closed toe shoes, hat with mesh, safety glasses and gloves. Workers should have: Light rain jacket, water resistant rain pants, waterproof rain boots, an extra pair of socks, an extra pair of shoes, water backpack and a water bottle. Workers might want: Sunscreen, bug spray, bag lunch, snacks, labeled gear bag, moist towelette and four liters of water.
The sites tout the “educational” aspect, the chance to learn “life-long work skills.” They ignore the obvious: Detasseling is short-term. Part-time. Long hours of manual labor. No training or education needed. Loyalty expected from but rarely given to workers. A gateway job for the low end of today’s gig economy.
The line boss whistled for our attention. Lean and weathered; attired in frayed slacks, dirty T-shirt, muddy work boots and tattered gimme cap, he gave us the drill: Grab the tassel, pull it out of the stalk and drop it to the ground. Simple, easy.
A healthy plant can be 10′ feet tall (“knee high by the 4th of July” is a sorry crop). Each detasseler stands in an open metal cage suspended by a boom arm on a highboy tractor driven by the crew chief. As the tractor moves forward, the tassel atop each plant passes by at waist height. The boss stressed that it is essential we pull each and every tassel. If we miss one, we must immediately yell to the crew chief who needs to back up – in a straight line to avoid damaging the plants – so the tassel can be pulled.
I was dressed as I always was (as we all were) in the summer – shorts and T-shirt. I wanted to wear my Jesus boots (aka sandals), but Mom insisted I wear socks and shoes. Something about tromping around in the fields would ruin my sandals. No need for sunscreen as all of us were already baked brown having laid down our base tans by getting blister burned by early June. No one wore a hat. No one brought a bottle of water or gloves, jacket, safety glasses, etc.
The line boss said us city boys might find it difficult. Fat chance, hayseed! I thought. I can handle it. I get good grades. I know what hard work is. We all do. We all can handle it. How hard could it be? We have all day, all week, all month. Sooner or later, we’ll get it all done.
We climbed into the cages and waited, eager to get started. Steve mounted the seat in the highboy, orienting himself to the controls, assuring the line boss that he felt confident and comfortable. He had never driven a tractor before.
Above the corn, I could see for miles. No crews in any direction. Just a verdant ocean of corn. Tassels ad infinitum awaiting my full concentration. No diversions. No distractions. No thinking. Just grab, pull, drop. Hours upon hours sailing across an emerald sea with rhythmic motion to calm my restless hands and pacify the teenage chaos raging inside my head.
Detasseling is a critical link in the chain of food production connecting the fertile soil of the Midwest to hungry people in barren regions of the planet. Genetically modified food gets a bad rap (especially deserved with tomatoes), but hybridization has created corn with higher yields, better disease resistance and stronger drought tolerance. Since its origins in the early 1900s, the process has produced enough abundance to feed millions of people who otherwise would have starved. Today, nearly all of the 90 million acres of corn planted each year in the United States is genetically modified.
Hybrid seed companies plant fields of experimental seeds modified for specific characteristics, growing the corn each year to determine how the seed will perform. A single tassel can contain millions of grains of pollen which, even in a slight breeze, can fertilize plants a half mile away, ruining an entire field. Removing the tassel eliminates unwanted random cross-breeding. For decades, nearly all corn was detasseled by hand. Precision machines introduced in the last few years now detassel 80% of the corn. The other 20% is still done by people – mostly kids.
Detasseling begins around early July and lasts until mid August. May and June are too early. September and October are too late. Detasselers work rain or shine.
Steve jerked the tractor into gear, wrestling to keep it under control as he gave it gas.
The line boss neglected to mention and we didn’t fully realize that the tassels would come to us as fast as Steve drove. The natural athletes on the crew adapted rapidly. Those without strength, quickness, timing, spatial awareness, fine motor skills or hand-eye coordination – me – didn’t. Like Lucy in the candy factory, I lurched into panic of perpetual motion. No time to rest. A tassel swept by. No time to wait. I blindly grabbed, pulled and dropped. No time to pause. The next one appeared. The speed forced me to twist and stretch to my right to complete the pull then instantly pivot back to my left for the next one. Again and again and again. Steve’s erratic driving bumped the plants, sending the tassels swaying. The cage wobbled and bobbed. Precise repetitive motion was impossible. I fumbled and bumbled, trying to reach forward in anticipation and match the momentum of the tractor.
The gossamer-thin tassels look soft and supple, but their tips are rigid and sharp. My hands were poked and my fingers jabbed. The leaves of the corn plant look pliant but their edges are coarse and micro-serrated. My arms were scratched and my legs scraped.
The line boss walked between the rows demanding that Steve speed up. One guy missed a tassel and called to Steve. As he backed up, the line boss ran to the offender and yelled at him to stop being lazy. The brief rest helped – I could refocus, hone my concentration. Steve began again slightly faster. Seemingly satisfied, the line boss hustled to his truck and sped off. When he was out of sight, we implored Steve to slow down.
In late summer, Central Illinois feels like a tropical jungle. Out in the open, without wind, trees or clouds, moisture evaporates then settles onto the fields – a fat, invisible blanket of humidity woven thicker by the hour as the sun rises in the sky and heats up millions of plants. The blanket saturates rural regions from Pennsylvania to Nebraska. The heat index regularly climbs above 110°.
We were desperate for relief by the mid-morning break. I was disoriented from dehydration. Steve cautioned us to drink slowly. And don’t get too comfortable. Don’t relax. We began again – far too soon. At the lunch break, we sat on the ground eating our sandwiches, traumatized numb.
In early afternoon, we saw the line boss’s truck barreling toward us, kicking up a storm of dust on the access road. He jumped out and made a beeline for us, yelling, “FASTER! FASTER! FASTER!” He drew even with Steve, pivoting to trot alongside the tractor, “C’MON! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?! C’MON! FASTER!” Steve nudged the accelerator. My wet noodle arms complained, but with the line boss in earshot, I stayed silent. Others groaned and muttered. The line boss bellowed “FASTER! FASTER! FASTER!” Steve winced. He nudged the accelerator again. The grumbling grew louder. The line boss ignored us, screaming at Steve without pause for the rest of the afternoon.
I was rendered insensate by the time the workday ended.
When Mom woke me up the next morning, I wanted to tell her I quit. I didn’t dare. I couldn’t disappoint her and Dad. They’d endured the Depression. Dad had toiled for 22 continuous years at a steel plant. In Decatur, your job defined you.
I dressed in a long-sleeve shirt and jeans.
The drive to Illiopolis was silent, the station wagon permeated by dread.
We didn’t see the line boss until lunch when he strolled over to say we wouldn’t be working in the afternoon. I was relieved.
Then Steve said we’d just been fired.
I couldn’t tell Mom and Dad. They’d think I was a failure. Their friends would find out. I would embarrass them. The crew piled into the station wagon. By the time I got home, I knew I had no choice. They’d find out. Hiding it would compound the disaster.
They were, to my surprise, understanding. They’d worked on farms. They’d known all along I wasn’t made for field labor. I still felt I disappointed them.
I didn’t mention my detasseling debacle to anyone when I started school a couple weeks later.
It took a string of successful summer jobs – fast-food cashier, park ranger helper, apartment cleaner, newsletter intern and landscaping on a lakefront property owned by a local corporate bigwig – to gain enough experience and shed enough regret and shame to look back with perspective: I hadn’t made much money, I never saw any girls – topless or otherwise, but at the end of that school year I did get the best grades of my life.
Bob Zeni is a writer, editor, and designer in the Chicago area.