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Local kids take to fields for summer work

Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 9:15 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Heidi Litchfield – hlitchfield@shawmedia.com)
Pioneer Hi-Bred International contractor David Campbell teaches a crew of new agricultural workers what to look for when detasseling the female corn.
Caption
(Heidi Litchfield – hlitchfield@shawmedia.com)
Nathan Elkin was out early Wednesday morning detasseling corn for Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Morris.

MORRIS – School is out for summer, but Plainfield fifth-grade teacher David Campbell is still teaching kids in the Morris area about agriculture as he runs his crew of kids detasseling corn in local fields.

“This is my fourth year working in the fields,” Campbell said. “I spent the first two years working with a friend on a Morris crew and spent last year in Ottawa.”

This year he is running his own crew of 50 as a contractor for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. out of Utica, who has crews of kids and young adults ages 13 and older, walking row by row removing tassels from the “female” corn plants. “Female” plants are the rows to be detasseled, and the “male” plants are the rows that will be used to pollinate the detasseled rows.

They remove the tassel from the female rows, because it contains pollen that allows corn plants to reproduce. They pull the tassels from the rows of female corn plants and leave them on the male plants, so they can cross pollinate and produce a seed corn that farmers want to plant.

Grundy County Farm Bureau Manager Tasha Bunting said seed farms are rare in Grundy County, in part because they are labor intensive, but a lot can be found downstate near Champaign.

That’s where companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred International come in. They hire contractors who in turn hire local kids to work in the fields doing a job that can’t be done completely by machine.

Brian Oster with Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Utica said they have 688 kids working this summer detasseling seed corn.

A wheel pull is taken through the field first and removes some of the tassels but the field must be 99.7 percent clean of tassels on the female rows. It can take the kids up to three passes through the field on different days to achieve the clean status required.

Campbell said being a teacher and having the summers off works perfectly with the agricultural timeline needed to get the corn ready and also works for the employees who are mostly junior high and high school students.

“I started last year,” Haden Howe of Seneca said. “We rent our farmland out, so I come and detassel with them for the money.”

He said the job isn’t really hard, just boring.

Both Howe and Morris resident Cindy Campos said the hours fit perfectly with their summer, as well.

“I wake up early, get the job done and have the rest of the day to myself,” Campos said. “It’s a good way to earn your own money, as well.”

The kids are paid minimum wage for the work and get paid from the time the bus leaves Saratoga School at 6 a.m. until they are done in the fields, which typically is around noon each day this early in the season.

Bunting said years ago there were more agricultural jobs for kids in Grundy County but over the years, with the advancements in technology, there are fewer jobs including “walking beans,” where kids would walk the rows of soybean fields pulling the weeds from the crops.

“Not many walk beans anymore, they can plant the plants closer and use round up ready seeds which means they don’t need kids in the soy bean fields,” she said. “Some farmers still hire kids to bale hay and straw and use high school kids with other jobs like mowing and helping with livestock.”

Kailyn Hoaglund of Morris said it’s the perfect way to spend her summer, as there isn’t a lot to do since none of her sports teams are playing.

“If I wasn’t doing this, I would stay home and do nothing,” she said.

The kids, like the farmers they work for, work regardless of the temperature or precipitation and only stay out of the fields if there is lightning.

Campbell is hoping to expand his crew next year and have more fields, resulting in more workers working for him.

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