A Central Illinois cornfield is not the most comfortable place to be in mid-July, but that’s where I stood last week.
My husband and I were visiting a farm in Fulton County, west of Bloomington. Part of the tour included a trek through bean and corn fields.
Having spent many happy days as a girl at my grandparents’ farm, I knew to prepare for the hike. Long pants, durable shoes, straw hat, lots of bug spray. But after walking along the tall corn, I wished I had brought a Hefty garbage bag and scissors to make an impromptu poncho.
Those of you who have ever detasseled corn know exactly what I’m talking about.
“Are you reliving the days of your youth?” my husband asked.
“Yes, and I’m glad I’m not 15 anymore.”
If you’ve never heard of detasseling, here’s a quick explanation. Think of the acres and acres of beautiful cornfields in our area. At the top of some cornstalks is a tassel which is removed to control pollination. Back in the day this was done manually. Laborers, many times teenagers like me, walked up and down rows, pulling tassels by hand.
Morning dew made the fields a muddy mess, turning our shoes into concrete blocks, and leaving us drenched. So, we cut holes in garbage bags and wore them to stay dry.
We stumbled along, trying to protect our faces and arms from the sharp stalk leaves which could cut. And by noon, the field was like an oven.
That’s detasseling. Worst. Job. Ever.
OK, so maybe not the worst in the world. But, when you’re under age 18, detasseling is one of the few ways to make good summer money. And for those who survive, it is a badge of honor to brag about or bore your children with years later. (“When I was your age, I detasseled!”)
In the summer of 1978, our crew met at the high school parking lot at 5:30 a.m., and piled into a bus. We slept until we reached the assigned field and then pulled out the homemade ponchos. After a while we ditched the plastic garb because the heat turned the sacks into broiler bags (like the ones you cook turkeys in).
One girl on our crew wore shorts and a bikini top so she could get a tan while she walked. The guys loved her. But I was afraid of corn rash, so I always wore a long-sleeved shirt. Translation: I was an unpopular nerd. (But with clear skin.)
The day’s highlight was break, when we collapsed under the nearest shade tree and devoured our sack lunches. If there was no tree, we pathetically crowded into the small area of shade cast by the crew boss’ truck. We were always famished and longed for “just one more” Twinkie.
Once home, I showered off layers of mud and went to sleep so I could repeat it all the next day.
Today, technology has replaced some of the need for such manual labor, but there are still detasseling crews around. The pay is still pretty good; a teen-ager under 18 with perfect attendance can earn up to $9.25 an hour.
Online instructions for 2017 crews include warnings such as “leave your iPod and mobile devices at home. Anything lost in the fields is next to impossible to find.” (I bet.)
Interestingly, all workers are now required to wear safety glasses, hats with nets and gloves in the field at all times. And, no shorts and no sleeveless shirts allowed. So much for bikini tops.
Detasseling can be tiring work, but it teaches a good lesson. Study hard in school and maybe someday you can afford all the Twinkies you can eat and never have to wear a garbage bag poncho again.