There will soon be yellow school buses driving all around the Chatham-Kent area, but they aren’t carrying students heading to summer school or to camp. These are buses carrying corn detasselers for another day of hard work in our local seed corn fields.
So just what do these kids do all day? Today, let’s look at Corn Destasseling 101.
Corn plants will pollinate themselves if left on their own. This is called self-pollination, which is accomplished through the tassel, which contains the male flower spreading pollen. This pollen is ‘caught’ by the female flowers, which are the silk part of the corn plant, which eventually produce the corn kernels.
Seed corn producers, however, want to prevent self-pollination. What they want instead is to ensure cross-pollination between the two varieties of seed corn selected for their field. Hybrid seed corn is produced by crossing two different inbreds of corn, called hybridization. The two inbreds used in this process are referred to as male (the plant responsible for producing pollen) and the female (the plant which produces the hybrid seed). To ensure the purity of the cross or hybrid, the tassels are entirely removed from the female rows, which ensures all the pollen for producing the seed crop comes from the male rows.
Nearly all detasseling is done in two steps. The field is first detasseled by a machine and then manually. A detasseling machine called a “cutter” goes through the rows of corn to be detasseled and cuts off the top portion of the plant. This is done to make the field more uniform so that a “puller” machine can come through the corn field a few days later and pull the tassel out of the plant by catching it between two rollers moving at a high speed. This removes the majority of the tassels.
Detasseling machines typically remove 60% to 90% of the tassels in a seed corn field. However, detasselers also need to walk through the field in order to ensure the field is 99.5% clear of female tassels. This walking up and down the corn rows, or passes, may have to be done a number of times until the field passes inspection. This inspection is generally carried out by older students with detasseling experience.
If detasseling is done too early, it can damage the plant. If detasseling is done too late, there is a risk of self-pollination.
Every summer in Chatham-Kent, hundreds of students are employed as detasselers, starting when they are about 13 to 14 years old. It’s a tough job, as they have to work in all weather conditions. They end up with blisters, cuts, sunburn, and insect bites. It teaches them the value of hard work and the experience looks good on a job resume.
All four of our children went through this summer ordeal. At that time, they didn’t really thank me, but they now realize how important this job training experience actually was.
Chatham-Kent is the number one producer of seed corn in all of Canada. This year, seed corn acreage is lower, but the demand is still out there. That is good news for students and those looking for some extra cash.
So, the next time you see detasselers coming home from working in the hot and wet corn fields, why not thank them for a job well done and encourage them to keep going.