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Hard to find teens to detassel corn

URSA (AP) – Larry Lewis has seen changes in how hybrid seeds are developed since he planted his first 5-acre seed corn in 1960.

Detasseling machines now remove about three-fourths of the tassels, the pollen-producing flowers from the top of corn plant. When Lewis first started, every tassel was removed by hand. That required hundreds of workers to walk rows detasseling the plants.

“We used to pull every tassel by hand, and that took a lot of kids,” Lewis said. “There’s not enough kids in this area to take care of that now.”

Lewis, retired president of Lewis Hybrids, said between 200 and 300 teens are typically hired to detassel corn for a few weeks in July. However, the company has been about 75 workers short this season.

“It’s not necessarily hard work, because you only work in the morning,” he said. “We ask them to report in by 6:30, and we like to have everybody starting by 7 and try to be done by noon.”

It’s a delicate job at times, as workers need to be careful not to pull off the leaves.

Fourteen-year-old Jamie Crider of Lima started detasseling corn last week, and she already plans to return next summer.

“It’s not bad, and I like the supervisors,” she said, after finishing up Friday. “It’s good money for what we do.”

Lewis Hybrids starts workers at $8.25 per hour, but Lewis said they will receive more if they have previous experience or become a supervisor.

Crider applied with Lewis Hybrids after seeing the applications at her school.

She said the job isn’t difficult, with the workers pulling off the remaining tassels from the plants, making sure none are missed.

Detasseling the corn allows it to be cross-bred with a different species of corn that is planted every four rows in the field. This helps produces a hybrid seed, which produces a higher yield.

“[The pollinating row’s] pollen will blow over on these silks,” Lewis said. “You have to time it so when these [tassels] get ready to shed, these silks are ready to receive the pollen.”

Dale Erke, who oversees detasseling, said the fields are checked up to six times with the detasseling machine and the workers.

“It’s not uncommon for them to come two or three times with kids,” he said.

As many as 120 workers have been detasseling corn for Lewis Hybrids this year.

“We’ve had enough [workers] to get done what we needed to do, but if we had similar acres to years past, I don’t know if we’ve had enough,” Erke said.

Lewis Hybrids has planted as many as 1,600 acres of seed corn in previous years. About 750 acres of seed corn were planted this year. With some fields a half-mile long, it takes crews about an hour to make a round trip pulling tassels.

“They can get six rounds done in the morning, so that would basically be about six miles of walking,” Erke said.

Interested teens should keep an eye out for applications next spring at their schools. Lewis Hybrids hosts informational meetings each year in Quincy’s South Park a few weeks before detasseling season starts.

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