Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of toiling in the Minnesota cornfields July 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:17 AM
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WHAT’S THE WORST SUMMER JOB you’ve ever worked?

For me, the response to that question practically flies off my tongue. Detasseling corn ranks, hands down, as the worst job I’ve ever held, beating out picking rock and walking beans by acres.

Here’s a scenario of how that part-time summer position played out for me back in the early 1970s in southwestern Minnesota: Rise early to catch a school bus. Bounce along bumpy gravel roads with a bus full of other sleepy teenagers to the edge of a cornfield. Slide on a rain coat. Then begin your day’s work, stretching on your tiptoes to pull tassels from corn stalks.

Rows and rows of corn stretch across acres and acres of land under the hot summer sky.

Dew slides down your arm. Rough corn leaves scratch across every inch of exposed skin. You itch. You sweat. You hurry up. Sometimes you bend low to the earth to snap sucker plants that leech onto the main corn stalk. Your back aches. Your muscles scream.

And then, when you have to urinate, you squat between corn rows and hope no one is watching. Forget toilet paper, unless you’ve stashed some in your pants pocket.

As the sun moves higher in the sky, heat and humidity rise. You shrug off the raincoat. Your skin burns. (Who’s heard of sunscreen?) Sweat trickles down your face, burning your eyes. You sweat and sweat some more.

Come noon, you’re thankful for a break in the shade-tree oasis of a farm yard (if you’re lucky) or in the shade of the school bus. You grab your Styrofoam cooler, remove the cover with grimy hands, unscrew the lid of a quart jar and lift the glass to your lips, gulping Kool-Aid like a thirsty camel.

Hungry from all that physical labor, you wolf down a sandwich, inhale chips, nearly consume an entire apple in several bites.

Then it’s back to the corn for a few more hours of reaching and yanking. The oppressive afternoon heat blasts like a furnace, smothers your breath, sucks away your energy. Your feet drag. Your mind screams: How much longer must I tread this land, pull these tassels, endure this misery?

By 3:00, you are bone-weary, exhausted, thankful that your supervisor has finally hollered, “This is the last round.” You are finished, for the day, with the tug-of-war you’ve played with the corn.

You join the line of subdued teens climbing onto the bus, bodies weighted with lead-heavy weariness.

Tomorrow you’ll return to the farm fields to fight the corn again, all for $1.25 an hour.

In the setting sun, a corn tassel stretches high above the corn plant.

JUST A NOTE: Working conditions in cornfields have improved dramatically since the 1970s. Today detasselers ride machines (I’m pretty sure), have access to bathrooms and certainly earn more than $1.25 an hour.

If you have a worst summer job story, submit a comment and tell Minnesota Prairie Roots readers about your experience.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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5 Responses to “Memories of toiling in the Minnesota cornfields”

  1. Neil Sorensen Says:

    I also detasseled corn through the Job Service in Montevideo, Minnesota just after my fourteenth birthday. Before that, I worked in the fields for family members and privately, but Job Service requires workers to be at least 14. At the time, the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour.

    There is no doubt that it was worse than picking rock or weeding soybean and sugar beet fields, but it also would depend on the farmer you were working for.

    To add to Audrey’s account, we often hog-piled in the back of a pickup when the farmer came to pick us up at the job service office. Rarely were the crews big enough for a bus. In the beginning of the day, the corn was covered in dew or rain from the previous nights’ thunderstorm, and often the fields were a muddy catastrophe, with the head-high corn keeping the ground from drying out. Rightly, we had to wear a rain coat or a long-sleeve shirt, which became drenched almost immediately after beginning. Nobody in our crews wore a raincoat, because it was too hot. In any case, but mid-day, it was far too hot for a long sleeve shirt of any kind, let alone a raincoat. You were faced with the decision of removing the long sleeve shirt and getting hundreds of razor-like leaf cuts or nearly dying of heat stroke, not to mention the threat of sunburn and the heavy caked mud that made it difficult to walk.

    Good farmers gave the crew an excellent lunch. Sometimes they gave us fresh lemonade, venison sausage sandwiches, all sorts of bars and pop. The ‘bad’ farmers gave us bad food or nothing at all. They paid the price in poorly detasseled corn.

    It was a lot of hours, much more than for weeding fields and picking rocks, which is why we were all motivated to do so. It contributed to a good work ethic, and I’m glad to see field work is becoming more attractive financially for farmers, as costs of petroleum rise, giving opportunities for our young people to realize the value of work.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Neil, thanks for your account of detasseling corn. Your details were, oh, so accurate. Thank you for adding that detasseling teaches kids a strong work ethic. It did. It does. I think every teen should spend a day or two detasseling corn.

      I was astonished to read that farmers sometimes fed you meals and bars. Never happened at the farms I worked.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by Minnesota Prairie Roots and check back often.

  2. Kelsey Says:

    How did u get signed up for it

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I honestly don’t remember because this was decades ago that I detasseled corn. If you’re looking to detassel corn this summer, check your local newspaper. I see an ad every summer in the Faribault Daily News classified section seeking corn detasselers.

  3. […] Memories Of Toiling In The Minnesota Cornfields (MN Prairie […]


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