The Awful Task We All Wanted

Author Photo
By Renee-Lucie Benoit

Warning: Graphic descriptions contained herein. Rated: PG for disturbing images.

Grabbing something hard enough that is covered with bugs so the bugs squish in your hand is not high on my list of wonderful things to do. But, honestly, folks when I was young, we all wanted to get hired for corn detassling and bugs were just part of the program.

I was employed as a corn detasseler for a couple summers when I was around 15 years of age. I worked for Pioneer Seed Corn out of Tama, Iowa. It was a coveted job because Pioneer paid well for the unskilled labor and Johnny-on-the-spot. All we had to do was walk down the rows of corn and yank the tassel out of every plant on certain rows. I can’t remember how many acres I was responsible for but when you’re standing alone in a big field with corn surrounding you in every direction, it seems like the rows are endless and you’re being swallowed up. I was grateful for the fact that most fields were rolling hills so when you came to the top of a hill you could see how far you had left until the end.

It was a pretty easy job for the most part. I started out with gloves but quickly realized that they were a hindrance for being able to grasp the tassels effectively and pull them out so there was nothing left. You had to grab hold of the tassel pretty firmly because the tassel was attached to the plant very well. So every once in a while you’d grab a tassel that had bugs covering it and, of course, some of the bugs squished in your hand. Doesn’t that sound just peachy?

This was the summer that I got over being prissy and doing things with a high “yuck” factor. This has stayed with me all my life. Now I’ve moved on to castrating bull calves and other such things. Having a high tolerance for the yuck factor is a good skill to have on a farm or ranch. All you guys and gals out there know what I mean. If you don’t, start cultivating it. Eventually you’re going to be alone with no one to bail you out and you’re going to have to do something yucky. Man up. You can do it. I have faith in you!

The reason we had to detassel was because this was hybrid field corn that was used for seed. Corn, if you don’t already know, is both male and female in a single plant. The male part is the tassel and the female part is the silk that forms on the ear. If you have a certain hybrid you want to produce, you have to have a few rows of intact male plant and female plants with their male parts removed. Then there will be two plants of different kinds that will cross pollinate, and you will have a “new” type of seed corn. If you don’t detassel, the plants will self pollinate and your plans for hybrid seed corn will be ruined.

Photo: Fotolia/Kybele

I think machinery is used a lot nowadays to speed up the process, but back in the day it was all hand labor. The manager hired dependable people, told them which rows to detassel and set them loose with their deadline. There was a certain window to get the corn detasseled and some days my mom and sister came out to help me. Some days were very long. We had to finish before the silk came out.

This was before the day of those Steven King movies having to do with Children of the Corn so there was no weirdness about going into a field alone. Just the gleeful recognition of how much money we were making. Being alone in the corn gave me plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts. There were the hawks wheeling over head and sometimes we whistled to each other. The weather was usually hot and muggy but we were working on our upper body tans so that was a perk for us girls. We wore tanks tops and doused ourselves with cool water at the end of the rows.

Now I live in a place that doesn’t grow seed corn. Here it’s either dry land grazing or nut and fruit trees. I look back on those days when I was young and physically strong with fondness and sometimes wish I could go back again. But I’m grateful for the experience and I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories of my family and me in the field doing a rewarding job.

Published on Sep 8, 2014