Farm Horizons, Sept. 2005

A late summer tradition: detasseling

By Rachel Keranen

Although many dictionaries don’t recognize the word “detassel,” residents of Dassel and Cokato are on very familiar terms with it.

Say the word at a group gathering, and nearly everyone will have a story to tell.

The long days in the hot sun, walking up and down the seemingly endless rows of corn leaves, and busloads of kids are memories not easily forgotten.

“Detasseling is the process of making hybrid seed corn,” said Kevin Dahlman of Dahlco Seeds.

Hybrid seed corn yields more in the fields than open pollinated fields of corn.

The process of detasseling involves removing the tassels of the corn from the female stalks. The tassels hold the pollen, which fertilizes the corn by shedding, landing on the silk of the corncobs, and traveling into the kernels.

By removing the tassels of designated female plants, the detasseled plants can only receive pollen from designated male plants. Incest is no fonder looked upon in corn than in humans; detasseling ensures that the fertilization occurs between two different families of corn.

Detasseling begins in the “tasseling stage,” when the tassels start to appear in the corn. This, typically, is in mid-July. The crews are sent into the fields and work for two to three weeks, until all of the tassels are removed.

Almost all seed companies have machinery that goes out into the fields before the detasselers. There are two types: pullers, which have rotating wheels that pull the tassels out; and cutters, which have a blade similar to cutting the tassels off. The workers pull out the tassels that the machines miss.

Detasseling crews are typically made up of younger teenagers, beginning with middle-schoolers. Labor laws don’t necessarily apply to seed companies because they’re agricultural, according to Dahlman.

Each company sets their own employment age, but Dahlco Seeds hires kids 13 years old, or going into seventh grade. Some local companies hire as young as age 12.

According to Dahlman, the ideal detasseler is a kid who is willing to get up in the morning and work in tough conditions. The fields may be wet, muddy, hot, dry, and/or buggy, and the workers need to be able to deal with the conditions.

The worst part of detasseling, according to Bryant Beckermann, 14, is “the heat and the long days.” Beckermann has detasseled for three summers.

However, kids also enjoy what detasseling has to offer.

“You can be with your friends,” said Shane Davis, 13, describing what he considers the best part of the job.

Workers must also be able to follow directions, must be disciplined, cooperative, and able to work well with others, said Dahlman.

Dahlman believes that detasseling is good for the local economy, due to the amount of money that the seed companies pump in.

For many kids, it is their first job away from their parents. Some spend the money, some save it for the future, and some do a little of each.

Will detasseling ever disappear, to be replaced by technology, as so many traditions are?

Dahlman believes it is “possible, not probable. The way corn breeding works, detasseling will be around for a while.”

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