Why do they do that? – Detasseling Corn

Ever wonder where the corn seed that farmers plant comes from? In order to plant the millions of acres of corn throughout the Midwest each spring, farmers need to first buy seed. The seed that they buy is often hybrid varieties that have beneficial traits like being drought tolerant or disease resistant. To get these special hybrids, farmers and the companies they work with have to make sure to cross pollinate the corn. Corn pollen spreads by wind so how do farmers ensure that the pollen from one type of corn lands on the silk of another type of corn to create the hybrid? Detasseling.

corn-anatomy_33185857_stdEach and every corn plant has both a male and a female flower. The tassel sits at the very top of the plant and produces the pollen. The ear of corn with the silk then is the female flower. When the wind blows, pollen from the tassel will shake loose and fall on the silk. Each strand of silk is connected to a different seed on the ear of corn. The pollen makes its way down the silk to pollinate the ovule and develop into a seed. When left to grow naturally, a corn plant will pollinate itself. To produce a better type of corn, different strains of corn are mixed or cross-pollinated.

c4Seed companies contract with farmers to plant these fields. The companies work with the farmer to determine when to plant, when to detassel, and when to harvest. Seed corn fields are planted with two types of corn – one will have the tassels removed and will bear the new hybrid seed. These will become the ‘female’ rows. The other will retain its tassels and serve to pollinate the first. These will become the ‘male’ rows. Fields are planted with three or four rows of female to every one row of male.

Up to 70% of tassels are removed mechanically. Then crews come through and clean the fields by hand removing any tassels that the machines missed. Timing is important because if you detassel too early yield may decrease. If you wait too long, the corn plant will start to pollinate itself. The window of the growing season to detassel is usually only 16-20 days long. Detasselers must remove 99.7% of the tassels in the female rows. That means that crews can only miss 3 in every 1,000 plants!

detasseling-003Each summer about 100,000 people, mostly students, head out to the corn fields to detassel. Some companies even mobilize bus fulls of people and move throughout the Midwest following the corn crops north as they mature. Of course not every field needs to be detasseled. Most field corn doesn’t need to be detasseled and the harvested corn will go to make corn meal, corn flour, corn syrup, ethanol and a myriad of other products. But you can easily recognize a seed corn field with three rows that look like the top has been chopped off and a fourth row standing tall.maxresdefault

Detasseling corn is vital to producing the best corn seeds possible for the next growing season. And for more than 70 years detasseling corn has become synonymous with Midwestern culture. It is a ritual in its own right. Corn is the number one cash crop in the U.S. with a value of $12.1 billion. This method of hybridization has created a 6-fold increase in corn yields over the last 60 years.

Have you ever detasseled corn or do you know somebody who has? We’d love to hear about it!

-Will

13 thoughts on “Why do they do that? – Detasseling Corn

  1. Pingback: Sounds of summer | Notes from Dr. Dave

  2. Yes four years as a teenager in 1965, 6, 7 8. Hard work, great money, character builder and had a great time with the crews. I also rogued male corn plants b4 detassling.

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    • I detasseled corn in1952-1953 in northwest Iowa. First year was “on foot: The next two years was on a machine that had four stations on each side of the tractor! When it rained the night before we went without shoes or any footwear as it was too muddy to do otherwise! If I recall we earned about $75 for two weeks of work and back then it was a lot of money for teens to be able to make more anywhere else. We dressed in multiple layers to avoid sun, the sharp leaves of the corn on our arms, and the blazing July sun. Great character builders, but hard, hard work. We got up at 4 a.m. to be trucked out to the fields.

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  3. Thank you for the informative post. I did detassel corn for a short time. It was in south Florida and the crew I worked with mostly picked tomatoes, but in December 1976 tomato picking was slow–perhaps from cool weather–and one of the alternative jobs we did was detassel corn.

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  4. As a high school student in Remington, In. I detassled corn for farmers around Remington area. I recall rising early and the dew laying heavy on nearly everything. It was in August as I remember and the chilly mornings called for light jackets but removed shortly after sun came up. We rode on an unusually built wagon (sorta) which had a small platform on each side. We stood on it as tractor moved through the designated male and female corn rows. You had to be very fast pulling every tassel. When one was missed tractor stopped and someone ran back to get it. That is how important it was for hybrid corn. As 13 to 16 year olds the money was good and we all knew each other as the Remington population was only around 900. A lot of fun and it only lasted a couple of weeks just prior to starting back to school. I could be wrong on it being a wagon style. It could have been a platform built onto the tractor itself……just not sure. Two kids stood one just behind the other to make sure front person did not miss one tassel. “Those were the days my friend. We thought they’d never end”. BUT THEY DID!

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  5. I detasseled corn in Indiana back when I was about 15 years old. We met in the mornings at the school and took school buses to farms to detassel corn. It was fun. I remember the dew in the morning. There were many beetle bugs on the corn. We got pretty dirty and it Took a while to get used to standing all day. Yes there were rows of male plants and female plants. Some corn fields had plants that were only a few feet high and other cornfields had plants that were a good 7 to 8 feet high. For the whole summer we got paid in one check at the end. A grand total of $465 if I am remembering correctly.

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  6. Yes. Two cousins of mine did it every summer in the 50s. We all lived in eastern Iowa around Toledo and Clutier area. I wanted to do it too, but was too young. They came home every day absolutely Exhausted, and sun burned. Ahh the good old days!

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  7. From age 13 to 19 (even after having a thyroidectomy earlier in June) I detasseled corn for Cargil Hybrid Seed Co. in Minnesota along with other girls my age. With the first paycheck I bought a bicycle, next paycheck a watch and with succeeding checks, saved for school. Back then we were never warned about skin cancer nor the dangers of the pesticides that I’m sure were used to protect those precious corn seeds. Who ever thought of wearing clothes to protect ourselves from the sun’s radiation and from the dangers of pesticides that we were never aware of nor warned of. Now I am 80 yrs old and have had years of exposure to pesticides and dangerous chemicals. I also have CLL, (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. One wonders what affect those pesticides had on this kid starting way back there at age 13. Do Americans quit work during the heat of the day as is done in some other countries?? No, of course not! Like with detasseling corn, just take a lunch break, a large salt tablet and some water, and keep on working in the hot sun. I have a feeling my present health problem got it’s start way back at that tender young age.

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  8. I detassled corn from 1974 through 1977 when I lived in Washington, IL. Several of my friends and I would ride our bicycles up to the town square and wait for the bus. We were working either for Pfister or Monsanto. Monsanto used a “basket” system on a tracker that had 3 baskets on each side that would allow us to ride in the fields but they paid less. Pfister would have us walk the fields and paid about 25 cents per hour more (If memory serves, we made around $2.10 per hour, so 25 cents was a lot! Typically we worked in crews of 6 with a crew boss and two ‘checker’s that would walk behind the group looking for missed tassels. I was 12 when I started and worked until I was 15. The first year was with Pfister (they would accept a 12 year old). I was watched very closely for the first couple of days because of my age to make sure I did things right. My best friend and I did it together and we had never done anything like it. I came from a family where when you made a commitment to something you saw it through. The season was 3 weeks long for me that year. The first day, we had no idea what to expect. We were told to wear jeans and a long sleeve shirt and to bring a short sleeve one if we wanted. We were picked up around 4:30 am and hit the fields by 6:00. We worked until 3:00 pm with 2 15 minute breaks and 30 minutes for lunch and were paid for 9 hours per day. It took about 30 minutes to walk a row. By the end of our first row, both of us were MISERABLE. The morning due had soaked us through, the corn plants are dirty so you have dirty water on everything and the plant leaves will cut you if you’re not careful, and we weren’t, leaving our little cuts full of dirt and water. If it hadn’t been for the commitment I made and my best friend with me, I would have quit on the spot. It was probably one of the biggest and best reality checks of my life ( I would later go through basic training as part of my ROTC training and compared to this, basic was a breeze!). 2 hours later, by 9:00, all the dew was gone and were already mostly try. We had finished the field and were being moved to another. We watched everyone else and learned most of the tricks by the end of the day (including bringing a big trash bag to where over your clothes in early morning. Some would have ponchos but we used garbage bags cause we could throw them away or leave them on the bus and not care. We also created some new tricks that others picked up. One was to freeze a can of coke (or whatever) and then wrap it in aluminum foil and a paper towel and put it in our lunch bag with our other stuff (Usually 2 peanut butter sandwiches, chips and fruit (I liked plums because we usually didn’t get them so it made me feel like a ‘working man’, lol). The coke would be icy cold by lunch and would keep the rest of the stuff cool rather than having an overheated lunch. My first year, in 3 weeks, i made $380 gross my first year and bought my first guitar. Each year we progressed a bit as we got older. Neither of us ever wanted to be a crew boss but we loved the work. By high school, we were go out for football and this work was the best prep for “hell week” we could get. When we were 14 and 15 we stayed longer than three weeks with the normal season covering four weeks and then were selected to be on a “de-rouging” crew (it was called that). For this two week period, we would be in a pickup truck and would go to experimental fields and look for the “Male Rows” to find individual plants that were mutating. You could tell because the tassels were heavily diseased and often had spider webs. Our job was to “run” to that plant, take it out with this sharp implement we carried, i.e. Cut it at the bottom and knock it down, and then “run” back to the truck which as moving slowly on the road. We did this for 6 hours a day for two weeks. I was in the best shape of my life! My last year, I made almost $600 dollars and bought my first electric amplifier for my electric guitar and joined a band and made money that way (I’ve stayed with music all my life, another reason to be thankful for the work). I also remember that when we cut down those plants, we’d often get showered with pollen from the plant so over the course of the day our hair would go slightly yellow-ish and, for me, my eyes would swell. I remember going to the community baseball fields with a “halo” in might sight from all the pollen that hit my eyes and thinking of it as a badge of honor! It was the toughest job I ever did and one of the most rewarding. I got regular jobs when I turned 16 but I will always remember those days fondly. I realize now I was helping the major ag companies to create their hybrid seeds that are now often demonized. I don’t feel bad about that. We were part of a group of people that were helping to create seed that would ultimately be used to grow food in places that previously couldn’t. Yes, I believe the ag companies have “over optimized” their products and it is, today, more detrimental to us all. We need to fix that. Back then, however, I saw a group of companies who were trying to help feed the world and I am priveledged to have been a part of it.

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  9. Three or four of us kids from Baring, MO detassled corn in southern Iowa in the mid-90’s. I went three years straight and helped buy my first vehicle with money earned from detassling corn. Great opportunity to work hard and make new friends! I have fond memories!

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  10. 1955 -1958 Lyon county southwest Minnesota I was a “town kid” hired for detasseling corn the best paying job available to teens. If you made the entire season you received a teen center per hour bonus. Started early in the a.m. when due still on the leaves. After first trip between rows your clothes were drenched. Later the sun was so hot you could get dehydrated and we were given salt tablets and water as well as cut by the corn stock leaves wherever your skin was exposed.. Had to work fast through the rows and if you missed any tassels you got a

    good chewing out. Worked long hours got bussed back to town. Went home and straight to bed so tired.

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    • Hi Wanda! Sounds like we were in the same “era”!! So tired when I got home that my mother had a bath water drawn for me. However, in my waning years, I look upon it as a “right of passage”. Most of my friends never heard of detasseling!

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  11. Basically, there were 2 summer jobs for farm kids when I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s….. walking beans and detassel corn. I did both. I do not remember how much I earned for the 3 years I detasseled but I know I earned every penny! 1972-75. We were a small crew known for excellent work and often would be assigned to go over a field that boy crews as first done. I grew up in O’Brien county and we worked in fields south of us. Sorry do not remember the company… maybe pioneer?? Agree with the wet and hot conditions, garbage bags,lunch times. I am not very tall.. just over 5 feet so every tassel I pulled was at a difficult angle. The corn stalks loomed over me. As they say… you can’t make this stuff up. Would not have missed it for the world.

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