Micah Torres and Austin Young

Micah Torres, left, and Austin Young, both of Kearney, walk through chin-high corn southeast of Funk while pulling tassels missed by the detasseling machines. They are Hagan Detasseling crew members who left Kearney’s Harvey Park on buses at 5:38 a.m. Wednesday and were working in the cornfield by 6:30.

KEARNEY — As machines and other technologies continue to shrink hands-on work along the farm-to-fork agriculture chain, many hands still are required each July to assure correct genetics are in corn grown as next year’s seed.

Starting this week, 500-600 workers in their teens and 20s are detasseling in cornfields roughly between Overton and Alda on both sides of the Platte River, said Robert Gray, site leader for Bayer Crop Science’s Kearney regional seed production plant.

Gray said the company works with a handful of detasseling contractors. Hagan Detasseling, which is owned by Brian and Hallie Hagan of Kearney, is one of the larger contractors.

Hallie said that except for following COVID-19 health directives from Bayer and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, most of what they’re doing this detasseling season hasn’t changed.

Targeting tassels

Machines can cut and pull 90 percent to 95 percent of the target corn plant tassels, but detasselers’ keen eyes and strong hands are needed to finish the job.

The process starts with planting corn in a five-row pattern. One is the “male” row that breeders want to be the pollinator. The other four “female” rows must be detasseled so they don’t pollinate themselves.

Brian said the goal is to remove 99.8 percent of the female plants’ tassels. That requires at least two “pulls.”

First, each detasseler walks down a row of corn pulling tassels and comes back through the field pulling tassels in an adjacent row.

For the second pull 48 hours later, four detasselers walk the four female rows again looking for anything missed or growing back. They are followed by a crew chief who has at least five years of detasseling experience.

Proper gear

The Hagans expect to cover approximately 2,200 acres in the next three weeks, Brian said, with all fields producing DEKALB brand corn seed for the Bayer Crop Science — formerly Monsanto — plant at Kearney.

All detasselers and support crew wear bright orange, wide-brimmed hats with attached net face guards. Hallie said they wrote the name of each worker on his or her hat this year to help in keeping records of rows covered by each.

Those walking through the fields also wear company-issued protective glasses, gloves and corn husk yellow “arm socks” with the DEKALB logo that features a winged ear of corn.

“We used to make our own arm socks,” Hallie said. “We bought tube socks and would cut out the toe part.”

“And make a little hole for the thumb,” Brian added.

Each worker must bring a water jug, raincoat — many wear black garbage bags as morning protection corn that’s wet from dew or recent pivot irrigation — a cooler with food and old tennis shoes. Many also bring sunscreen and bug spray.

“Sometimes the pivots are on when we get there and we have to wait to start until they are turned off,” Hallie said, explaining that mid- and late-July mornings can be cold for kids walking through wet fields.

“They do have to wear long pants, yoga pants or something like that,” Brian said. “... No skin can touch the corn leaves anymore.” That was an added protection rule initiated in 2019.

As for recommending old tennis shoes as comfortable footwear, he said, “We tell them you’re gonna walk 10 to 15 miles a day.”

Those miles are walked mostly down the same rows year after year.

“It’s the same farms, the same fields. We get to make friends with their (farm families’) pets. We have a few favorite dogs,” Hallie joked.