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The Midwest's Record Wet Spring Is Interfering With The Corn De-Tasseling Job Market


If I say the words corn detasseling, you probably do not think glamorous job - and you'd be right. It is hot. It is dirty. It is also a summer job that pays well for many teenagers in the Midwest. This year, though, the record wet spring is interfering with the corn detasseling job market. Allison Mollenkamp of member station NET explains.

ALLISON MOLLENKAMP, BYLINE: Every July, thousands of Midwestern kids as young as 13 load onto school buses at 5 o'clock in the morning to travel out to cornfields in the middle of nowhere. They don work gloves and safety glasses and become corn detasselers. The workers spend their day walking up and down row after row of cornfields, often reaching for plants above their heads to pull the tassels from the tops of plants and discard them in the dirt. Makylee Ailes will be working for her dad's detasseling company for the fourth time this summer.

MAKYLEE AILES: It's not terrible. It's not the worst thing I've ever done. But it definitely takes a toll on you by the end of the season.

MOLLENKAMP: The season lasts only about a month, usually starting in early July. But an unusually wet spring is pushing that season back this summer. Tyson Buresh co-owns a detasseling company, and he's concerned he won't have workers for the end of the season.

TYSON BURESH: One contractor already asked me if I'm going to have kids in the middle of August, which would be the latest dates we've ever went in the last 40 years.

MOLLENKAMP: At the end of the season, as they start to lose their labor force to pesky academics, some detasseling companies may shift to a weekend-only schedule. The good news? Not all corn has to be detasseled. It's reserved for seed corn, which becomes next year's commercial crop. In Nebraska, that's about 150,000 acres. Darin Doerr is production leader for seed company Corteva Agriscience. He also worked as a detasseler growing up.

DARIN DOERR: The tassel is the male portion of the plant that has the pollen in it. So when it drops the pollen, it falls on the female portion of the plant, which is the silk.

MOLLENKAMP: Seed corn fields are planted with two breeds of corn separated by rows. Removing the tassels from one breed means it cannot self-pollinate, ensuring a hybrid seed. Aaron Saeugling, another detasseling veteran, is an extension field agronomist for Iowa State University. He says machines can now remove about 90% of corn tassels.

AARON SAEUGLING: It cuts the top portion of the plant off, exposing the tassel. So it's much easier to go in with a puller. They bring this machine in, and it tries to grab the tassel and pull it from the plant.

MOLLENKAMP: But 90% isn't good enough for seed companies. Kids help them get to near 100%, and in return, detasselers make good money. One detasseling company owner estimates an average worker will earn about $1,500 for a few weeks of work. Beginner detasselers make less, usually around minimum wage. Makylee Ailes’ dad, Brent, is a high school principal and runs a detasseling company. His pitch to kids is they can make a couple thousand bucks in just a few weeks of work.

BRENT AILES: And then the flip side is I may work at Dairy Queen 20 hours here, 10 hours this week, five hours this week all summer long, but I don't even have total lump sum that I could earn in detasseling, which is kind of a compact two to three-week season.

MOLLENKAMP: Detasseling has a long history across the Midwest, and many embrace the idea of teens building character during their time in the fields. For teens like Makylee Ailes, hard work is made a little easier by having friends out in the field too.

M. AILES: It definitely makes it more enjoyable when you have friends out there 'cause then you aren't just all by yourself walking down the cornfield.

MOLLENKAMP: Detasseling may be hotter and harder than scooping ice cream and certainly dirtier than bagging groceries, but for the next month or so, teens across the Midwest will load onto school buses in the wee hours and go to the countryside for their jobs because wet spring or not, the corn keeps growing. For NPR News, I'm Allison Mollenkamp.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ORB'S "EDELGRUEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Mollenkamp
Allison Mollenkamp (she/her) is a fellow with NPR's Investigations Unit, where she's worked to cover election denial and the fallout from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. You may have previously heard her on Nebraska Public Radio, where she led national Murrow Award-winning coverage of the state's 2019 floods. Mollenkamp holds a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Alabama.
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