As the dawn pales the night sky Wednesday morning, a school bus on a dirt road south of town stops to deposit a group of youths into a cornfield for another day of detasseling.
They are joined by NBS Enterprises LLC Manager Scott Sloup and his foreman Daniel Buss, whose detasseling days are behind him, but fresh in his memory.
“This is really hard,” Buss said, recalling eight summers in the cornfields. “You get up at 2, end at 4. If you can do this, you can do a lot of things.”
The early time and the crew’s informality creates some leeway for unexcused absences. Often, the group’s size varies day to day.
“When they’re all here, we’ve got 47,” said Crew Leader Kim Loeffelholz. “There are 38 out here today.”
Since June 29, Loeffelholz has been meeting her crew at 5:30 a.m. for work before the July heat halts work in early afternoon. Buss said detasseling seasons typically last 20 days, but Loeffelholz said her crew will stop working, “when we don’t have a field anymore.”
Detasseling is a day of repurposing. A school bus becomes employee transportation. School students are repurposed into laborers. Columbus High School Director of Bands Jeff Peabody becomes a detasseling supervisor.
He said detasseling work is early this year because of the weather.
“We’re ahead of schedule because it’s been so warm,” Peabody said putting on a plastic suit that looks ready to stop a rainstorm but used to stay dry walking through the fields. “May had some wetness to it, so it’s been perfect for growing.”
He explains that the tassels, the male reproductive organ at the top of the corn plants, are removed from all corn plants but those with the desirable traits. This superior plant retaining its male organ can then pollinate the detasseled female plants without interference.
Peabody said crew members earn an average of $7 per half-mile, which could be finished in as little as 15 minutes. Checks are distributed at the end of the season.
“Two machines get 60 to 90 percent of the tassels,” he said, before fields are manually detasseled by crews.
Today’s workers are mainly of school-age teens in gym shorts listening to iPods.
“It’s really nice to listen to music while pulling tassels,” said Scotus Central Catholic eighth-grader Bennett Frewing after pulling out his earbuds. This is Frewing’s first summer detasseling.
“I’ve been doing this about three days. I heard it was a good thing because my brother did it. I thought I’d give it a chance,” he said. “Getting wet’s the fun part.”
Not Frewing’s age, inexperience or height deter his speaking about the detasseler’s arthropod encounters with an expert’s tone.
“There might be a few bugs out there, but just ignore them,” Frewing said. “There’s like little spiders. I just came across a caterpillar that had spikes.”
Loeffelholz’ crew has members as young as 12. For many of them, detasseling is a rite of passage as their first job and first paycheck.
“It’s really for the people that are up for it,” said recent Columbus graduate Brendon Rathje, who is in his third year of detasseling. “Not everyone’s up for it.”
Joseph Ghormley returned to detasseling for the good wages and time to himself after 10 years away from the field.
“I moved here from Lincoln after getting married,” he said. “So, I’m out of college, 23, and looking for work.”
And the art is quickly coming back to him.
“Once you get into the groove of things, it’s just muscle memory,” he said. “I think about anything from books to movies to philosophy.”
But it’s a lot of work, Ghormley said.
“It really teaches self-discipline that a lot of other stuff when you’re in middle school, high school doesn’t,” he said. “It’s a really good experience to have even if you do it one or two summers.”
Others, such as Eric Robinson, look to detasseling as a way to participate in a cultural tradition.
Robinson lives in Germany with his father who is stationed at a military base there. He returns during summer to visit his grandparents and will spend his summer detasseling before returning in August.
“My dad used to live here. He grew up here. His whole family detasseled,” Robinson said. “He had me detassel, and I just kept doing it.”