Farm Horizons, August 2009

Detasseling: still a need, still a moneymaker

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

With many teenagers having a harder time finding a summer job this year, local seed companies had plenty of applicants to choose from when it was time to hit the fields for detasseling this past July.

Dahlco Seeds, located north of Cokato on County Road 3, had more than 200 applicants this year. This was a lot more than in typical years, according to Duane Dahlman of Dahlco Seeds. They had to turn away about 60 of the applicants, he said.

There are also crews this year with detasselers who are in their second or third year with the seed company.

In order to apply, youth must be age 13 or going into seventh grade. The majority of the crew are 13 or 14 years old, Dahlman said.

Spencer Mattson of Johnson Seeds in rural Dassel said it was easy for him to find applicants. He turned away about 30 kids.

He attributes the high number of applicants to the smaller number of seed companies in the area. There are only four crop companies locally producing seed corn, Mattson said. Therefore, there are more kids available for detasseling.

This summer, Mattson has a crew of about 50, and they typically work daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for about three weeks.

“Despite the lack of rainfall, the corn looks pretty good,” Mattson said.

Dan Mol, field manager at Terning Seeds of Cokato, also saw a large application base this year. He as well had to turn away about 40 applicants, more than in typical years. He said about one-third is returning from last year and about two-thirds are first-year workers.

When it comes to the job itself, detasseling hasn’t changed much over the years, except for maybe the number of detasselers needed.

Seed companies like Dahlco and Johnson use a detasseling machine that has blades similar to a lawn mower that cuts off the top of the plant while trying to take off as few leaves as possible, which can reduce yield.

By cutting off the top of the plant, the tassel is exposed and then removed.

Detasseling the crop by hand is much better for the plant. It leaves the leaf intact, creating a better yield, Dahlman said.

Unfortunately, the machine is necessary with the amount of acreage needed to be detasseled at one time, saving the seed companies labor costs, Dahlman explained.

Despite the detasseler machine, kids will always be needed for detasseling, according to Mattson.

“It can be a very fun and very rewarding job,” he said.

There are not many summer jobs that will allow youth to make up to $1,000 in just two to three weeks of work, he added.

Workers must be paid at least minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but can earn more through incentives depending on how well they do on the job, Dahlman said. A first-year detasseler can make as much as a third-year through good attendance bonuses, showing teamwork, and being able to multi-task by talking and working at the same time.

Lunchtime is an important time for detasselers to get replenished before heading out to the fields for the rest of the day.

Dahlman is a firm believer that if the detasselers don’t have to look at their work while they eat, they are likely to be more motivated when it comes time to hit the fields.

To do this, the buses take the kids back to Dahlco headquarters, where they can eat their lunches in the yard.

He also makes sure that throughout the day, the kids get to take water breaks as needed depending on the temperature.

Detasseling is only needed for hybrid seed corn and the cross-pollination of two different plants, Mattson explained. Cross-pollination is done in order to achieve a plant with better characteristics including producing an increased yield and tolerance to drought.

Seed companies plant the corn for the seed to be harvested and sold to farmers, who then grow the corn for feed, food, or fuel, Mattson said.

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