Students earn money detasseling
Students earn money detasseling

Beneath the bright morning sun in a cornfield outside Whiting, Iowa, Holly DeRocher, dressed in a yellow rain suit, supervises young corn detasselers who are walking through uneven muddy farmland.

"I follow behind, make sure they're doing their job," DeRocher, 20, said. "They're mostly 14-year-olds, and if you don't get them moving, if you don't shout at them, they really don't move."

Lauren Berkenpas, 16, of Le Mars, is one of those under DeRocher's watchful eye as she yanks tassels from ears of corn nestled in the leaves of tall stalks to put money into her pocket. Now in her third year as a detasseler, Berkenpas said she enjoys her job because it allows her to meet new people.

"I had one cousin do it and she said, 'Why don't you go try it?' so I went out and tried it and liked it," Berkenpas said. "If you don't like the outside, I wouldn't do it. There's mud, there's water, there's heat."

Berkenpas said learning the job was the hardest part. Now, it's just a matter of making money -- with a few surprises.

"You get cut, corn rash, you scare up a deer or two occasionally," she said.

Identifying worker-occupied rows with small orange flags, DeRocher keeps the young detasselers in order, making sure the job gets done efficiently.

"I just don't want to be their elder and boss them around the whole time," DeRocher said. "I talk to them, try to get to know them a little bit.

DeRocher, a junior at Briar Cliff University, works for her father, Steve DeRocher, who started detasseling in 1977 and has since founded Smak Inc. -- for Steve, Mary (his wife) and kids.

"We're producing seed corn for the farmers next year," Steve DeRocher said. "When they go to plant their seeds they need new seeds, so we're producing it for them."

Mindful of his detasseling method, Steve is careful to keep his male and female corn separated.

"We want the pollen from what we call the male rows because we leave the tassel on there. We want that to pollenate the ones we pull the tassels off for the female rows; then we get the cross and the genetics that we want," Steve said. "We have to get these female rows as pure as we possibly can to get all the tassels out."

Before detasseling crews move in to do manual work, machines are used to do as much as possible.

"First they machine it (trimming the stalk down) with what they call mowers, and then they let it sit a day, then they mechanically pull it with machines and then we go in and we clean up whatever (the mowers) missed," Steve said.

A tough job due to early morning hours, hot weather, wet corn and rough terrain, Steve calls detasseling a challenge.

"You just got to stay healthy, eat, drink plenty of water and you're fine," he said.

No one has yet passed out in his fields, he said, but bloody noses and breathing problems can occur.

But there's no shortage of youths willing to do the work, at least not his year, Steve said.

"I attribute it to a couple of things," he said. "The gas prices are hurting me because I've got 11 buses running down the road and I'm paying for it, but my theory is that the economy is pinching people because of fuel prices, so kids get encouraged by their families to get out there and work."

The young workers of the corn fields work in many areas of Siouxland, but mainly in fields near Whiting and Sloan.

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Trace Plathe, 16, of LeMars is in year two of the business, mainly for the money. Plathe considers the job easy and said there's really nothing to do.

"Outside job is a good thing, I just like working outside," Plathe said. "I'm not stuck in a store doing groceries or something; I can't stand that stuff."

The day begins early for Plathe and his fellow LeMars co-workers, sometimes before the sun rises.

"LeMars, we have to get up at 5 a.m.," Plathe said. "The bus leaves at 5:30 a.m. and then we go and pick up people from other towns, and by the time we get here it's about 6 a.m."

Despite the long walks through the corn fields, Plathe said there is one downside to the job.

"If we miss a tassel, we have to go all the way back and get it," he said.

However, it all boils down to the dough.

"Over the years you get paid more," Plathe said.

A first-year detasseler, according to Steve, typically makes $7.75 an hour with time and a half on Sundays -- an overall average of $8 an hour -- with a raise each succeeding year.

Steve said workers can earn $500 to $1,000 for three weeks of work.

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