Growing Season (July/August 2010)
by Emily Polson, age 15, Iowa
I am imagining myself lying at home in bed with a nice, cozy blanket wrapped around me, resting my head and neck on a wonderfully fluffy pillow. I am imagining myself sitting in a hot tub, utterly and blissfully relaxed. I am imagining myself absolutely anywhere but this dirty, crowded, smelly bus.
All of a sudden I am pulled from my happy place by a voice: "OK, you guys can start putting your sacks on!"
I let out a dramatic sigh and snap back into reality: I am squished sitting three-to-a-seat on a school bus on a rainy and hot (and thus very humid) July day wearing a long-sleeved shirt, long jeans, and high-top work boots at 5:40 in the morning, ready to take part in an Iowa tradition for teenagers. I groan as the people on both sides of me begin attempting to put on their variously sized garbage bags. I wiggle my arms out and put my own 55-gallon trash back like a rain poncho. This is it, I think as the bus pulls down a side road and into the driveway of a farmhouse. Too late to quit now.
Detasseling is walking through a corn field and pulling the tassel (the pollinating part at the top) off the corn plants. There are machines that do this, but they miss some tassels due to the varying heights of plants. Detasselers are there to pick up the slack.
We do this because years ago, farmers got the idea to breed together two different types of corn to make a hybrid "super-corn." They grow one row of "male" corn (corn that keeps its tassel) for every six rows of "female" corn (corn that is detasseled). You walk in groups of six down a panel (that's the six female rows) and pull off all the tassels. You come back a few days later to check the field and get any tassels you might have missed. After all of the tassels from the "female" plants have been pulled, the corn grows and the "male" corn's tassels open up and release pollen to fertilize the "female" corn. Shazam! You have hybrid seen corn that gets sold and planted to grow "super-corn."
The bus quieted as our supervisor stepped on to make morning announcements. He then started reading off names. Hearing mine, I worked my way to the front of the bus through the mass of sleep-deprived teenagers. I was given a neon orange hat with a face net, bright yellow safety glasses, and a pair of work gloves. This, plus the garbage bag, is the complete set of safety equipment for detasselers. The garbage bag may not be fashionable, but it keeps us somewhat dry from the ever-falling rain or morning dew.
My group assembled and headed toward the cornfield. We were assigned our panels and lined up. Our checker (a more experienced detasseler who walks behind us and picks the tassels we miss) told us to go, and with a deep breath I plunged into the leafy green abyss.
Although it was only 6:00 in the morning, I was wide awake now as the icy-cold leaves drenched my sleeves, already damp from the rain. I moved slowly at first. Each time I pulled a tassel, I heard a satisfying squeak or pop. Hey, this is actually kind of fun!
The day dragged on without the rain letting up. $7.75 an hour...$7.75 an hour...We did row after row, and the rain began to soak up our legs and our arms. Finally, wet and miserable, we all piled on the bus to head home. More than 45 rain- and dew-soaked teenagers were squished together, most telling themselves they would certainly not be returning the next day.
This was going to be a long few weeks.
I awoke at 5:30 in the morning on August 6. It feels so good to sleep in until 5:30, I thought. Because it was our last day, our supervisor let us start an hour later. My mind wandered back over the past two and a half weeks. Up at 4:30, at the bus stop by 5:25; the crowd on the bus getting progressively smaller as many decided this was not the work for them; baking two batches of cookies to bring on my brother's birthday; freezing corn plants in the morning, blazing sun by day; sunburn on the back of my neck and on my wrists between the gloves and shirt, the only exposed parts of my body. Last day. I smiled.
I was delighted when we arrived at a very small field, meaning a very short day. I started singing as I walked quickly down the panel. I had gotten much faster and could identify a tassel in a single glance. After completing the last panel, I was overjoyed. I'm done!
The bus ride back home was the best one ever. I could hardly wait until the next morning, when I would sleep as long as I desired. Getting off the bus, my brother and I headed to our car. I gave one of my new friends a quick goodbye hug. "Are you coming back next year?" she asked.
"Oh yeah!" I said without thinking.
Looking back, I'm sure I will. It may not have been the most fun, but it's an Iowa tradition. After all, we are the Corn State.