Corn detassling popular summer job for students

PLYMOUTH — The cornfield looked empty, just a mass of stalks bending under the sun’s heat.
A few minutes later, however, a large red tractor became visible over the tops of the corn. Groups of kids, all wearing neon orange hats to shield their face from the sun, jumped off the long arms attached to the tractor, brushing cornstalk remnants off their hands. They were in the middle of a long morning of detassling corn — and it was time for a break.
“(The job) has it’s ups and downs,” said Derrick Lee, one of the detasslers, Thursday. “Especially on days like today. It’s hot!”
Lee is one of the 1,000 kids in counties of northern Indiana who are hired by Pioneer in the summer to detassle cornstalks, said Plymouth production plant manager Mark Letsinger. The Plymouth group, led by Plymouth high school teachers Phil Koops and Paul Patrick, leaves from Riverside Elementary each morning at 6:30 a.m. and works until about noon or 1 p.m.
“We’ve been detassling for about a week,” said Patrick. “(The kids) have been doing a good job — it’s very repetitive.”
Patrick, whose 13 and 14-year-old daughters work doing detassling, said that the job is good for younger kids who aren’t old enough to get a typical fast food job yet. The two teachers also recruited some older kids, said Patrick, to drive the tractors and lead the younger detasslers. The minimum age to do the job is 13.
“These kids are the best of the best,” said Koops. “It feels pretty good that you are able to provide employment to the kids. It’s a hot, sweaty, summer job, but we try to have fun with it.”
The kids pick which days they want to work, said Patrick, and many of them work in the fields six days a week.
“They like the idea that they can get 25-30 hours of work a week,” said Patrick, adding that the detasslers are paid a little more than minimum wage.
If a field can be detassled to Pioneer’s specifications (99.7 percent clean) in two passes or less, the kids each get $1 more per hour, said Patrick.
“On a good day, we could probably do a 50-acre field in one day,” said Patrick.
“The money is definitely a perk,” said Meagan Barron, one of the kids old enough to drive the tractors.
“And the tan!” added Haley Smart, smiling.
Pioneer has been hiring out kids to work in their cornfields since the Plymouth plant opened in 1989, according to Letsinger.
“It seems like this year we have a lot of interest from kids wanting to work,” said Letsinger.
Pioneer provides the de-tassling groups with hats, safety glasses, and gloves, as well as water and such to combat the heat.
“We make sure the kids are well hydrated and safe in the heat,” said Letsinger, adding that a field safety technician is on site at the cornfields, making sure that the kids take breaks and drink water. Crew leaders bring portable tents to make a shaded area.
Pioneer also employs several college students to do scouting—checking the corn for insects and disease. Alivia Sims, a sophomore at Purdue North Central, is one of the scouts. Sims said that she worked in the Pioneer plant last summer, but she prefers being out in the fields.
“It’s a good job — it’s obviously hot,” said Sims. “And if you don’t like bugs don’t do it.”
Sims and scouts like her record sightings of insects and disease on a report that they then turn in to Pioneer. If the numbers are at a certain percentage, said Sims, Pioneer will come in and spray the plants. Sims works from about 7 a.m. to 3:30, and will continue until school is about to begin in mid-August.