STURGIS, Mich. -- Second in the Dirty Jobs series takes a look at detasselers.
It's a July tradition in St. Joseph County. Hundreds of people, many of them middle school students, can be seen riding through seed corn fields on imposing machinery, pulling tassels from seemingly endless rows of corn stalks under a hot sun. Detasseling may be a tedious job, but someone has to do it.
Fields that require detasseling are producing seed corn, which is used by farmers to plant commercial corn. At the end of a season, a processor like Pioneer dries the seed corn, sorts it, bags it and then sells it to farmers for planting for the next year. Commercial corn is used to feed animals.
Seed corn requires plants to be cross-pollinated, or else the resulting seed won't produce ears of corn. Removing the tassels allows the male plants to pollinate the female plants. Detasseling occurs at the beginning of the pollination period.
The field is set up so four rows of female plants are divided by one row of male plants, allowing cross-pollination to take place. The result is hybrid corn.
A cutter makes a pass, cutting the tops of leaves from the female plants. A wheel follows and pulls out 75 to 80 percent of the tassels. At that point, the detasselers come in.
There are 25 contractors for Pioneer throughout the county, and the contractors hire the detasselers. Pioneer splits up 35,000 planted acres between the contractors.
Riding on a "personnel carrier," as Pioneer calls them, detasselers remove the rest of the tassels by hand with a swift grab and pull. There are two buckets on each side of the machine and two in front. On the first pull, there are two detasselers in each bucket. The driver watches to make sure that they're getting most of the tassels, and if pickers miss too many in a row, the driver will back up the machine and point out the misses. The tassels are dropped on the ground -- if not, the female pollen will still be able to pollinate the female plants, which defeats the purpose.
Then, a few days later, the crew returns for the second pull. One person will ride in a bucket. The second pull is more intense, Alex Barrus said. Barrus, who will be a third-year student at the University of Michigan in the fall, has been working for Rodewald's for eight years, detasseling in his first few years and then driving the machine. The drivers oversee 12 rows, making sure the pullers are getting the tassels.
The flowered tassels are easy to spot, and the rolled-up ones are usually a little lighter green than the rest of the plant.
During the second pull, Barrus said, "You need your best to sweep the field ... you have to get 99.5 percent of the tassels," and sometimes that takes even more pulls.
Pioneer requires workers to wear gloves and glasses, and drivers must wear earplugs.
"It's cold and wet in the morning, and in the afternoon it's hot and dry," Barrus said.
He has been working for Rodewald's for six years and now works the ends or drives. Part of his job is to do walkthroughs to remove stray tassels.
The Barruses got into detasseling through their father, Steve, who has been working with Rodewald for 20 years. The weeks in the field are a summer job for Barrus, who is a teacher in Constantine. Like most of the supervisors, he wears a lot of hats out in the field while overseeing kids, driving the machines and driving the bus.
The field the crew was working on the morning of July 14 is off Constantine Road between Stears and Mintdale roads. It's about a half-mile long, and each pass takes about 45 minutes.
They typically make four or five passes per day.
It was fairly cool out for a July day, and the sky was dark.
"Looks pretty overcast," said Beth Donley as she scanned the sky. "Might rain."
Donley drives a bus, drives the machines and does office work.
The detasselers work in the rain, but if there's lightning, they wait on the bus. Pioneer tells them how long to wait, thanks to a Doppler weather radar at the plant, which is located a little southwest of the field they worked that day.
Driver Kyle Zabel was on one of the Pioneer-supplied red machines. He worked for Tim Miller for two years in middle school and started working at Rodewald's as a driver.
A list of 11 rules is posted beside the steering wheel.
"Yeah, these rules ... ." Zabel said. "'Don't bump heads on the beams.' Yeah, that always happens."
A picker in a right-hand bucket was clearly violating Rule 11: No tassel throwing. That earned a swift reprimand from Zabel.
The season started July 6. It's the second-earliest start Gary Rodewald has seen in his 30-year detasseling career. Pioneer planted more acres this year, so they needed to get an earlier start to get it all done.
They work seven days a week for three weeks, detasseling 1,200 acres of female corn. The people who set up the machines arrive at 6:15 or 6:30 a.m., and the field labor gets in an hour later or so.
In the pre-machinery days, there were around 700 kids on the payroll. These days, Rodewald has 200 or so workers in the field. Normally, Rodewald's crews work up and down Stears Road, but it changes. They've worked fields as far away as Coldwater and Climax.
"We go where they tell us," Rodewald said.
The detasselers didn't seem to mind the monotonous work.
"It's pretty good, just ... tiring," Robert Martin of Mottville said.
It's Martin's first summer detasseling. He's going into eighth grade in the fall.
"It's something to do over the summer."
Joey Hileman, a 10th-grader from Constantine, is on his third summer of working the fields.
"I enjoy the money I get from it," he said.
Hileman is saving to go on a missionary trip next summer.
Zachary Fisher is also on his third summer. He said he enjoys "mostly hanging out with friends and getting more money." The work is "fine."
Most of the crew are middle school or high school students, but Nathaniel Lusk, 32, is also out in the baskets.
He said he detasseled when he was in school and decided to do it again while waiting for a new factory to come to Mottville.
"I'm not lazy," he said. "Thought I'd come out here and do this."
Sturgis (Mich.) Journal