A Tale Of Detasseling

Corn fields that are grown for seed are planted with two varieties. Removing the tassels on one variety allows for fertilization by the other, resulting in a hybrid. A machine goes through certain rows of the corn and cuts off the tops, including the tassels. But it rarely gets all of them, so humans are hired to go through, pull off the remaining tassels, and toss them on the ground. Detasseling is a right-of-passage for a lot of teenagers in the Corn Belt.

Grayson McElroy of Norwalk, Iowa, detasseled for three summers, starting when he was 16. He says workers get on a school bus at the crack of dawn for transport to the fields. They spend a full day walking up and down the rows of a cornfield. They share their workspace with bugs, mud, and the heat.

"It’s long and tedious, and you’re just soaked all day long," says McElroy. "You get out there, the morning dew’s still on the corn and then it warms up so you dry off, but then you’re sweating because you’re wearing long-sleeve shirts and sweatpants and everything out there, and it’s hot."

Detasseling crews work seven-days a week for up to four-weeks in what is probably the hottest and most humid part of the summer. So why do they put themselves through the torture? The money. He says it’s a great paying job, and you develop a good work ethic.

"If anybody has a kid who needs a summer job I say, yeah, I recommend it. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it in the end, and it teaches you just about every kind of responsible thing it can do," he says. "But, it’s good money, it’s good work, and you only have to work 4-weeks of a summer at the most, and you can do whatever you want the rest while everybody else has to work."

 Learn more about detasseling and how it’s done