Translating Food Technology: Why do farmers hire busloads of kids to walk their corn fields?

Why are Nebraska kids walking through cornfields?

In an average year, according to a Lincoln personnel recruiting firm that specializes in the practice, around 100,000 high-school and college kids spend about a month every June and July participating in a Midwestern rite of passage: "detasseling corn."

The annual practice is as old as the invention of hybrid seed corn, the most common form of corn seed used by commercial farmers today. Seed-corn companies produce that hybrid seed by forcing two strains or breeds of corn plant to mate with one another, producing an offspring seed that then carries the best traits of both parents. Detasseling, the practice you're witnessing when you watch teams of teens walk the rows of cornfields or ride above the plants on elevated platforms, is the final step in ensuring the quality of that seed.

To produce that improved hybrid corn on a commercial scale, corn plants, which normally pollinate themselves, are instead cross-pollinated. Seed-corn companies accomplish this cross-polination by first planting a field with alternating blocks of plants from the two different parent strains. In one set of rows, workers then remove the "tassel" or top part of the maturing stalk that bears the pollen. That detasseling leaves only rows containing the second strain's plants capable of pollinating the now detasseled plants, which will then go on to bear the hybrid seed.

Some recent attempts at mechanization notwithstanding, says Varsity Detasseling, the helping hand of the detasseler is still needed to produce a pure and superior seed. When the time is right and the weather cooperates, they must work quickly, typically beginning in late June to late July, beating the summer heat by starting at sunrise and working until mid-afternoon. Detasselers, usually working in two or three passes through each field, must remove 99.5 percent of all female-plant tassels in order to completely "clean" a field.

Watch this explanation of how and why detasseling works to produce pure seed corn.


In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.