It is said to be a rite of passage for many kids in Chatham-Kent – spending time as children of the corn.
More to the point – it’s about getting up early and being in a cornfield before 8 a.m. and pulling tassel after tassel off four out of every five rows of corn.
Corn crews are tasked with detasseling the female so it does not self-pollinate.
For the crews of Pinco Detasseling, which is owned and operated by Gilles and Luc Pinsonneault, the detasseling is done for Pride Seeds.
Gilles Pinsonneault said Pride has selected two inbred lines with proven agronomic characteristics. When combined, they become a hybridized corn plant, and the seed from the plant is what farmers rely on to achieve good-quality and high-yielding corn.
“Our job of detasseling is to ensure the female line does not self-pollinate as the company wants only the male parent line to shed and pollinate the female line (seed parent), thus ensuring a hybridization for a new seed,” Pinsonneault said. “The detasseling contractor’s role is to ensure 99.8 per cent of the female tassels are removed prior to them releasing pollen.”
When The Chatham Voice caught up to Pinco detasselers, they were essentially mopping up on a large field between Given Line and Maple Line west of Pain Court. The corn had already been machined – detasseled to the point of between 60-to-90-per-cent completed – and then hand detasseled. The young workers were in there performing “clean-up” duty, which is follow-up work on the heels of the machined and first-pull efforts.
Pinsonneault said crews can make three or four passes through a field to achieve the desired level of purity.
One out of every five rows of corn typically contain the male strain while the rest are female, he added.
Pinsonneault, a farmer by trade, has been running corn crews for nearly four decades. He said the kids generally have a great work ethic.
“It’s all about attitude. If they want to work, they can get it done,” he said.
The money, for some, is alluring, as for two-to-three weeks, they are in the fields every day for between four and eight hours a day.
Some, such as George Ansell, 13, of Chatham, said the work is easy, as it is basically walking up and down the cornrows, searching for and then pulling tassels off the corn.
Aidan Ellis, 14, wears a Fit Bit while he’s in the corn. He said he takes between 20,000 and 30,000 steps each day on the job. That translates into between 15 and 25 kilometres of walking the fields daily.
None of the detasselers interviewed by The Voice said they hated being there. But some admit being in the corn has its detractions. Max Lucier, 14, said it can be really wet in the morning before the sun has burned off the dew. His long-sleeved shirt was all but soaked as he spoke to The Voice on a recent morning.
And detasselers have to dress, not for the weather, but for the corn. All wear hats with protective face screens. Some wear ponchos in the morning to combat the dew, others don gloves to prevent getting their hands cut up by the leaves. Shorts are a rarity as well, to protect one’s legs from getting scratched and scraped. And from the bugs.
“The bugs are awful,” Oliver Shepherd, 12, who is saving up for a dirt bike, said. “They get in my ears.”
Brady Lewis, 14, said it is mostly dragonflies and spiders that he encounters.
“It’s when you see a web on a corn stalk. I’m always afraid to pull tassels with those,” he said.
Pinsonneault added the crews work rain or shine.
“In severe weather, we pull them out of the field. We just wait it out,” he said.
The longest delay this year due to a summer storm was about two hours, he added.
“They’re paid to wait,” Pinsonneault said.
Being in the corn is a team effort. Pinsonneault said he and his brother try to group up friends, and when one member is done his or her rows before another, he or she goes out and helps.
The same is true for crew leaders. These are typically older teens, such as Joelle Tetrault, 18, and Vivienne Myers, 16. They oversee about half a dozen other kids and assist where needed.
Many of the leaders, and some of the crewmembers have other jobs as well. They will finish in the fields in the afternoon and head to other work in the evening.
For others, their time in the corn each day is work enough. Shepherd said he “sleeps really well” at night, and Lewis said he’s typically down for the count by 9 p.m.
The morning dew, followed by the heat of a Chatham-Kent summer’s day, can take its toll, but all are encouraged to take regular breaks and stay well hydrated.
The conditions aren’t ideal, but you hear the crewmembers laughing way more than you hear them griping.
Such is life as a teen in C-K.