At 7:20 on a cool morning in July 2000, 30 teenagers tumble out of a yellow school bus parked at the muddy edge of a field of seed corn in east-central Illinois about 20 miles south of Danville. They walk to the bus’s back emergency door and pull out 30 worn wooden poles topped with sharp three-inch sickles, then fall into cliques as they walk through weeds to the start of the corn rows. They stab their sickles into the ground and begin tearing holes in black plastic garbage bags, making ponchos to keep off the dew and rain that cover the corn leaves.
Yesterday was stormy, and today is overcast. Some kids light cigarettes, others beg tokes. Some talk excitedly about what they did the previous day, the Fourth of July. A few kids stand alone, gazing sleepily at the ground as they wait for instructions.
The sickles, called roguing hooks, are used to cut down rogues–stalks of one breed of corn that are growing in rows of a second breed. The rogues can wind up in the wrong row during planting or grow up from seed scattered during previous harvests. One of the two desired breeds is designated the male or “bull” corn, and it will pollinate the second breed, designated the female. Only the female corn will be harvested for seed, which will be a hybrid of the two varieties, and that seed will be sold to farmers to plant next season.
A freckled boy with wire-rimmed glasses and a red Tommy Hilfiger fishing hat slathers sunscreen on his barely exposed face. A tall muscular boy adjusts the strap on his personal CD player so that it’s accessible while still protected by a Ziploc bag and his garbage-bag poncho. One of the crew’s two girls adjusts her ponytail and pushes a few stray locks back into a bandana scarf.
Their boss, 44-year-old John Corbin, stands on the road at the edge of the field and asks the kids to gather around him. He’s wearing a baseball cap with the NK logo of the late Northrup King seed company, retained as the logo of Novartis Seeds, a division of Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical, biotechnology, chemical, and seed giant that pays him to hire and oversee a crew of kids to rogue and detassel some of its seed corn. It also pays him to grow a few of the 1,500 acres his crew will rogue and detassel this season.
Corbin begins his morning pep talk, welcoming the kids who are starting today and thanking the veterans for a good first few days of work. Then he reviews basic health and safety protocols: always carry roguing hooks with the blades toward the ground, eat a good breakfast and bring a healthy lunch, drink plenty of water and Gatorade throughout the day, never enter a field without checking the signs–required by the Environmental Protection Agency–that say when the fields were last sprayed with pesticides and whether they’re now safe.
“And again, don’t throw stuff,” he says in a tone that’s more gently responsible than stern. “I think we all learned our lesson about that the other day.” A boy who said he was pretending to throw a shot put had lobbed a large rock that hit another boy, knocking the wind out of him and leaving a nasty bruise.
All of the kids here today have worked for Corbin in previous summers. They’ll rogue for a week or two, then do one to three weeks of detasseling. Corbin will need twice as many hands for the detasseling, so he’ll have to hire more kids when that starts.
Corbin and Mary Sungail, a 42-year-old farmer and school bus driver who helps him supervise, break the kids into crews of two to five roguers, each overseen by a teenage foreman who trails behind them to check their work and let them know if they’re missing too many rogues.
Most of the cornstalks in this field are about four feet tall. As the kids wade into their blocks, the wet leaves sliding across their bodies sound like the turning pages of books. Cold dew quickly soaks their exposed sleeves, and mud gets thick on their boots and shoes as they slip the roguing hooks around the bases of the rogue cornstalks, slice them off with a quick tug, then knock them to the ground.
A stream of vulgarities wafts over from a few blocks away. Bill (the names of all the kids, except Corbin’s sons, have been changed), a short boy with wrestling muscles, and Joe, a tall blond kid with a red freckled face, are talking mostly about fellatio, occasionally throwing in other acts to break the monotony. “That’s not what she’d say if you raped her,” Joe says at one point.
“Shut up and grow up, Joe!” snaps Susie, a short girl with a little baby fat that makes her look younger than 14. She continues moving fast enough to keep up with Joe and Bill.
Most of Joe’s and Bill’s verbal abuse is directed at 14-year-old Justin, the younger of Corbin’s two sons. “That’s because he doesn’t seem to mind,” explains Tim, a skinny 14-year-old with freckles and slightly protruding ears.
“Hey Tim, ya fag, stop playing with your dick and hurry up!” Joe yells.
“I’m not a fag–you’re a fag!” Tim yells back.
“Shut up, Tim,” says Bill. “You know you’re a fuckin’ faggot.”
“That’s not what your mom said when I did it with her,” Tim says. “She said I was the best she’d ever had.”
Asked if the conversations are always like this one, he says, “They’re pretty toned down today. You have to watch what you say out here. The other day I got lost in my block and had to backtrack and ended up taking a long time to finish. When the other boys asked what took me so long I said, ‘I got off on my rows.’ They made fun of that.”
Tim’s foreman, Roger, is a strong, compact older boy with hair that’s short on the sides, longer and bleached blond on top. “You’re missing too many rogues, Tim,” he says, and tells him to pay better attention and speed up. In some fields it’s easy to see the difference between breeds, but in others the difference is subtle–at least the brace roots that fan out at the base of these females are maroon and the brace roots of the males are green. It’s better to cut the wrong stalks than to let a rogue grow and breed with the females, contaminating the seed.
Within 45 minutes most of the kids have reached the far end of the field, which counts as a “through.” They stand around talking and laughing, their garbage bags dripping, their jeans and sweatpants sagging with dew.
Overseeing the end of the field is Jim, a hefty six-foot-seven 19-year-old with a year of college and work under his belt and an air of calm annoyance. He drives around on Corbin’s five-wheeled motorized cycle, which carries two orange 20-gallon coolers of water for the kids to drink, and he uses a walkie-talkie to communicate with Sungail as they decide which blocks to send the kids through next.
After letting each crew take a five- to ten-minute break, Jim sends them into new blocks of corn. When they reach the side of the field where they started, which completes a “round,” the kids head straight for Corbin’s three-quarter-ton pickup. The trailer attached to it carries a large plastic tank of slightly chlorinated water and soap dispensers for washing hands and two portable outhouses, one marked Men with duct tape, the other Ladies. The backs of the potties are adorned with EPA posters, printed in English and Spanish, that show Hispanic-looking people working in fields, drinking water, keeping their bodies covered with light-colored clothing, and washing themselves and their clothes after work.
When I was a kid detasseling for a small seed company in the early 80s, we brought our own water, peed in the fields, and never worried about pesticides. Corbin’s potties, hand-washing station, and pesticide signs are all the result of state and federal laws passed in the late 80s and early 90s, when many seed companies were forced to hire more migrant Hispanic roguers and detasselers because fewer local kids were opting to do farmwork. Many were lured away by a bounty of less physically demanding jobs in cooler, cleaner environments in nearby small cities. The influx of migrants brought more scrutiny of the working conditions, and that led to more regulations.
For years migrants passed through Illinois on their way from working spring crops in Missouri to working summer crops in Michigan and Indiana. A few stopped in Illinois to fill gaps in roguing and detasseling crews, and more stopped as the gaps grew bigger. Seed companies and migrant-worker advocates estimate that 80 to 90 percent of detasselers in the state are now migrant Hispanics.
Corbin has occasionally hired migrants to help with late-summer farm tasks done after the kids are back in school. He says they’re good workers, but he’s never considered hiring them for roguing and detasseling. “What migrants I’ve known have already had somebody that knows them and brings them up here and somebody that can work closer with them,” he says. “You’ve gotta provide housing, you’ve got a little more logistics that you’ve gotta work with.” Besides, he says, there are still local kids who need summer jobs, though he’s been forced to hire a higher percentage of younger, less experienced, and therefore less productive kids. He says that’s one reason he didn’t seek a contract with a second seed company this season.
Corbin had already met some of the new work-site requirements before the laws went into effect. He started providing portable toilets in the mid-80s, and he gradually added other amenities. “When we first started out, everybody was supposed to bring their own water,” he says. “Well, people didn’t see that their kids had water. Then you started providing water. You see that the kids aren’t getting lunches. You provide lunches. You see that they’re maybe not sent with a trash bag, so you provide that. You do anything you can to fill the gap.”
“Wash your hands and get a doughnut,” says Sungail as each crew emerges from the field. Corbin decided years ago to provide each worker with a treat after the first round, because some kids were apparently too hurried or too poor to eat anything before they left home for work. He offered granola bars once, but some kids sneaked extras. “I figured they couldn’t stuff doughnuts in their pockets,” he says.
A few small boys gather around Scott, a 15-year-old who’s almost six feet tall and has a nearly perpetual smirk. He’s wearing a red, white, and blue nylon jacket with stars and stripes and a bold USA across the back. Underneath, Che Guevara glares out from the front of his T-shirt. That morning his father saw the shirt and made him put the jacket over it.
Asked if he knows who Guevara is, Scott says, a bit defensively, “Yes, I did a report on him for Spanish.” Asked if he admires the man, he shrugs. “I dunno. I just wear it for my band.” That would be Rage Against the Machine, whose tour dates are listed on the back of the shirt.
Scott and the younger boys are still talking about music at the end of the next round.
“Hey, did you hear about that riot at a Pearl Jam concert?” says one. “Nine people were killed.”
“How could there be a riot at a Pearl Jam concert?”
“Yeah, they suck.”
The sun emerges, and a warm wind starts drying the corn. The metallic emerald Japanese beetles that have been drinking dew off the corn leaves all morning start flying around desperately, bumping into the kids’ faces, falling down their shirts, and eventually congregating in clusters on the leaves. The kids call them “orgy bugs.” They first showed up in this region 30 years ago, but they’re especially numerous this year, devouring all but the veins on tree leaves and garden plants and eating some corn leaves and silk too. Farmers sometimes spray pesticides to kill them, but Novartis hasn’t thought it necessary for this field.
When the last blocks are finished in the early afternoon, everyone climbs onto the bus to head for a new set of fields, 107 acres off a dirt road owned by another farmer Novartis contracts with. It’s now hot and sticky, and the corn is taller than what they rogued this morning–in the faces of even the taller kids.
“Man, this sucks,” Tim says. “I can’t wait till I can drive so I can get a real job at McDonald’s.”
“I’d rather do this, because it’s only a few weeks a year,” Roger says. “I’d be afraid if I started working at McDonald’s I’d get stuck working there.” He plans to become an auto mechanic after high school and already spends many of his spare hours and much of his spare cash rebuilding junk cars and competing in demolition derbies.
At the end of every round Corbin and Sungail hear the same questions from certain kids: “How much longer until we’re done with this field?” “How many rounds?” “How long until lunch?” “How much money am I making?” “How long until we go home?” Around 3:30 today the kids, a few at a time, finish the last round. Corbin has set out a cooler filled with cold pop, and they each grab a can while waiting for the rest of the kids to finish. Then they all pile back into the bus to go home.
Everyone’s clothes are stained brown by corn rust, a fungus that grows in many fields this time of year. The kids who wore sleeveless shirts or shorts against Corbin’s advice have impressive sunburns and corn rashes where the rough leaves have caused an allergic reaction. They don’t seem to care.
Sungail plays oldies music over the din of chattering kids as she drives.
“Mary, can you switch the radio station?” Susie yells at the beginning of a Beach Boys song.
Sungail obliges, but a few minutes later Susie pleads for another station change. This time Sungail ignores her.
Susie laughs at a lanky, dark-haired boy in the seat in front of her. The boy tries to look menacing but barely suppresses a smile as he stares motionlessly at her from behind mirrored wraparound sunglasses.
“Dave!” Susie yells between giggles. “Cut it out, Dave!”
A computer printout posted at the front of the bus says: “2000 Roguing Bus Schedule: Sidell–School Building 6:20, Indianola–Park 6:30, Ridge Farm–Park 6:40, Chrisman–IGA 6:50.” Chrisman, population 1,130, and Ridge Farm, population 940, both have a gas station-convenience store and a real grocery store, a few fast-food joints, and a few bars and restaurants. They also have small shops and farm-implement dealers, a couple of car dealerships, and school buildings that are still used. Sidell, population 580, has an old school building that’s been boarded up for years–it had been used as a recreation center and social hall off and on, but was too expensive to maintain. The village does have a small grocery, a couple of restaurants, a library, and a weekly newspaper. Indianola, population 340, has a couple of churches but no grocery and no gas station.
The Corbins live in an old two-story farmhouse midway between Sidell and Indianola. Corbin’s wife, Karen, processes health claims for BlueCross BlueShield, which provides the family with health insurance. Their older son, Jason, graduated from high school this past spring and now works nights at a warehouse that supplies Wal-Mart and other local retail stores. He also helps oversee the payroll of the roguers and detasselers, though everyone, including Justin, helps do the books.
Next to their living room is the family office, which is filled with three desks, two computers, a weather radio, a couple of tables, and shelves holding binders, boxes, and files. It’s decorated with family pictures and a heart-shaped wall plaque that says We Interrupt This Marriage for Farming Season.
Corbin seems comfortable presenting himself as a small farmer who struggles to make ends meet but who prides himself on keeping it all together with careful, constant attention to resources and overhead. So far, this year’s weather has been nearly ideal for field corn, which is used for food, livestock feed, and ethanol. Local farmers planted early, and despite some standing water, the timing of rain, warmth, sun, and wind has for the most part been perfect. They expect record yields, but they also expect another year of record-low corn prices.
“It’s tough,” Corbin says. “If it wasn’t for the government payments, there wouldn’t be a profit for many of us, in all honesty. We can call it welfare for farmers or whatever, but it’s just to the point where you’re very dependent on those subsidies.”
He blames recent changes in government subsidy programs for making farmers even more dependent on them, particularly the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, which, among other things, reduced subsidies that had gone to farmers who agreed not to plant as much of some crops to help avoid surpluses. “I understood their theory,” he says, “but we have the capability to produce too much real quick. Genetics are better, weed control’s better, insect control we’ve got if we need. Everybody ought to be fed and taken care of, but you know, General Motors, when they can’t sell cars they don’t keep producing more. Farmers, we don’t have that capability. Our way to generate more income is to try to generate more crops–us as individuals. Collectively, it’s a mistake.”
The Corbins own few of the 950 acres they’re farming this year. Like many local small farmers who survived the farm crisis of the late 80s, Corbin leases most of his acreage from other landowners. Leasing arrangements with elderly farmers, their heirs, or new landowners allow tenant farmers like Corbin to expand or contract their acreage year by year without the added worries of extra taxes or mortgages. Corbin and other local farmers have sometimes had trouble finding enough land to rent, but he thinks renting is a good business practice. “You can’t afford not to own less land,” he says. “The land is owned by a family farm. The son didn’t decide to farm. He’s in California, gone off to wherever to earn his living. The land ends up in somebody’s hands. They’re gonna rent it out, or they’re gonna sell it. So there’s land out there to rent.”
Corbin started his farming career on rented land, not having inherited land, equipment, or much farming knowledge from his father, a machinist who farmed 50 acres part-time and died when John was young. By the time he was 14, Corbin had his first job–doing various tasks, including summer detasseling, for a local farmer named Bart Coggeshall. “Bart wouldn’t take you until you got a little older and a little tougher,” he says. “He wanted somebody else to break you in. But he treated us all right. His wife would always bring cake to the field and tea to the field. He worked us hard, but then he’d always give us a little more money than what the other guys were making and a little bonus at the end of the year.”
Coggeshall was also a teacher at Jamaica High School. “I was gonna play football,” says Corbin, “and he says, ‘Why don’t you just forget that football? Why don’t you just help me out here on the farm?’ He farmed 250 acres, and he did this in the summer. He was a bank board director. He did other things besides farming, and it kind of rubbed off.”
After high school Corbin spent two years at a community college. Coggeshall, then in his 60s, wanted to slow down, but his son didn’t want to farm. Corbin did. So Coggeshall helped him rent the land and buy the equipment to get started. “I didn’t have any money,” Corbin says. “But he financed the machinery for me, and the late 70s were pretty good years to pay down debt.” Later he and Karen inherited some land from her grandfather.
Corbin had been impressed by some advice one of his professors gave him. “He said, ‘Utilize otherwise idle resources of land, labor, capital, and management.’ Well, my labor is more idle in the middle of the summer. You tend the crops, you get them up to this stage, they don’t take a lot of attention now, so that month is not that demanding laborwise.” That’s one reason he decided to start overseeing roguing and detasseling crews. He ran his first one in 1976, and he’s been doing it ever since.
Novartis pays him $13 per acre for roguing, which usually requires two passes by a crew but sometimes three, and it pays him $125 for each acre detasseled, which usually requires two passes. He sometimes negotiates extra compensation for fields that are “extra roguey” or have other unforeseen problems. He won’t reveal how much profit he makes, but chuckles and says, “It’s not nearly enough.”
Corbin will employ 30 to 40 kids per day to rogue this year, and his detasseling crew will average 60 to 70 kids per day–though he used to hire as many as 130 kids at a time. He figures he’s employed some 1,500 local kids over the years, including his sons. “It’s been good for them,” he says, “not only from working out here, but they also see the other end of it at home–payroll, the logistics of putting it together.”
It also gives kids from less-stable homes midsummer contact with caring adults. “I would say that there are a fair number of kids that don’t have a lot of organization in their lives,” says Corbin. “We pick up the same time every day. We assign you a row, and then you pull it out, and then you help your crew out.”
And it gives them some much needed money. Corbin pays the kids base wages of $5.25 to $8 per hour, depending on their experience, level of responsibility, and willingness to show up regularly. He adds a dollar per hour on Sundays, and on their last paycheck kids who’ve shown up consistently throughout the season get an extra 50 cents for every hour they worked.
Corbin mails the checks to the kids’ homes each Friday rather than handing them out at work, to ensure that the checks won’t get lost, stolen, or compared on the bus ride home. But he knows that too sometimes causes problems. “There’s a fair number of kids that never see their pay, which I hate,” he says. “The parents get the check, they tell the kid to sign it, and the kid never sees the check again. In some situations maybe they allocate the money back out to them. Or maybe they never see it all back in the form of clothes or whatever–maybe mom and dad intend to keep it for the kid and end up spending it on something else. I’ve heard reports of this.”
At 6:20 AM on Thursday, July 6, three boys get on Sungail’s bus at Sidell. She asks where Scott is.
“Scott’s not coming, he’s going to a concert today,” one boy says. “Hey, can you change it to 105? It doesn’t have any four-letter words.”
Sungail shakes her head absently and says no.
She ignores him.
Much of the corn in the first field of the day is only three feet tall. That’s bad for Novartis, but good for conversation. A new girl named Tara, who has dark blond hair and clothes that are a little too tight, starts telling me her life story.
She says she hasn’t talked much to her parents since they found out she was pregnant and kicked her out of the house. She says her stepfather is a youth minister at a local church, and her baby’s now three and a half months old. Before he was born, the father got into trouble using a fake ID and fled back to Mexico. Tara hasn’t heard from him since.
She says she wants to take classes at the community college but has had a hard time finding child care. She says her current boyfriend is chubby for her tastes, but he’s nice–not abusive like her last boyfriend. Her telephone and cable have been turned off, and she’s about to lose her electricity. She recently stole a new fan from Wal-Mart by opening the box and taking it to the service desk to complain that she’d bought it, taken it home, and found it didn’t work properly. Of course she didn’t have a receipt, but no one stopped her when she stomped out of the store with the fan.
After lunch Joe rambles on about sex, insisting that men constantly crave oral sex from women, no matter who the women are or what they look like. He wonders if women feel the same way. “Hey Susie, would you let any guy eat off on you?”
“Depends,” Susie says. “Maybe if he was really hot.”
“Would you let me?” Joe asks.
“No,” she replies without hesitation.
Before there was hybrid corn, farmers put aside what they thought were their best ears of corn to plant the following year. These “open-pollinated” strains of corn, few of which are still grown in this country, breed fairly randomly with whatever strains are around them. Tiny grains of pollen blow off the tassels atop the cornstalks and drift onto the sticky silks hanging out of the tips of whatever immature corn ears are nearby. If conditions are right, within a few minutes a tiny tube emerges from the pollen grain and grows down through the hollow corn silk, carrying the pollen’s sperm cells with it. The older portion of the tube collapses before the newer part has reached the soft cob, where the male cells meet the female and a kernel of corn is conceived. No longer needed, the silks detach slightly from the ear, and the exposed ends outside the husk eventually turn dry and brown.
Hybrid corn breeds the same way, except that people choose which parents will unite. Charles Darwin tinkered with hybridizing corn in the mid-19th century, crossing plants to produce offspring that were healthier and more productive than their parents–what’s known as hybrid vigor. Corn was a convenient plant for his experiments because each plant has both male and female flowers and produces a large number of seeds on each ear.
Darwin’s ideas made it across the Atlantic and were taken up by, among others, Edward Murray East, one of nine students at the University of Illinois’ new College of Agriculture in 1894. He became intrigued by experiments that forced corn plants to inbreed: the silk of a plant was covered with a little bag, and the pollen from its own tassel was shaken onto the silk. The offspring of these plants grew smaller and weaker with each generation, which most scientists, including East’s teachers, saw simply as more proof that inbreeding was a bad idea. But East thought there was more to be learned and left the U. of I. in 1905 to continue his experiments in Connecticut, including one that crossed inbred seeds with open-pollinated corn of different varieties and created fairly impressive hybrids.
Meanwhile a University of Chicago graduate named George Harrison Shull was conducting similar experiments on Long Island. Like East, he’d inbred multiple generations of corn and found that the plants became smaller but also more uniform. But he then crossed different lines of inbreds, and to his surprise, these “single-cross” hybrids were more vigorous and productive than either of their open-pollinated ancestors.
He announced his findings at a conference in 1908, which East attended, and the two men began corresponding. They disagreed about a lot of things, but for years they agreed that hybrid seed corn wouldn’t be practical because farmers couldn’t afford to grow several generations’ worth of low-yielding inbred lines. Moreover, the higher-yielding hybrids weren’t higher yielding for long, so farmers would have to either keep creating their own hybrid seed corn or buy it every year from someone else–something that seemed absurd at the time.
In 1916 Donald Jones picked up their work, crossing pairs of hybrids from pairs of inbred lines and creating “double-cross” hybrids. They yielded slightly less than East’s and Shull’s crosses, but they were less complicated and cheaper to grow.
Most of this research had been conducted by the public sector with government support, but now a handful of private seed companies began developing their own hybrid lines. The first sale of hybrid corn, a double-cross variety, was in 1924, but it was another decade before corn-belt farmers embraced the idea. Seed companies had to persuade the farmers that buying seed rather than setting aside some of their own each year would pay for itself in dramatically higher yields, and they had to persuade the public that inbreeding plants didn’t carry the same consequences as inbreeding animals or people. “The idea of inbreeding was, you didn’t do it with animals, you didn’t do it in marriage, so they didn’t think you did it with plants either,” says Doug Miller, an Indianola farmer who wrote about the subject in college. “This is a period of time when you’ve got nationalism in Germany and the pure race and all of this business going on.”
In 1933 Iowa farmers planted 35,000 acres of hybrid corn. Ohio’s farmers planted 1,000 acres, and Wisconsin’s 2,550. The next year Wisconsin farmers planted 10,100 acres and Iowa farmers 140,000; Illinois farmers joined in, planting 5,000 acres. In 1938 farmers across the corn belt planted 17 million acres of hybrid corn, 17 percent of the total corn crop. By the early 40s most of the corn grown in the U.S. was from hybrid seed.
The demand led seed companies to plant acres of corn, all of which had to be carefully inbred and crossed–which meant thousands of local laborers had to be hired each summer to rogue the misfits and detassel plants that weren’t supposed to produce pollen. When World War II created a shortage of men, women and girls took over the work, and after the war it became an annual source of employment for kids living near seed-corn producers throughout the corn belt.
By 1959 nearly 95 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. was hybrid, and farmers were getting an average of 51.5 bushels of corn per acre, double the yield of 30 years earlier. Hybrids kept improving, and today average yields are 160 to 180 bushels per acre. They also can carry traits such as higher oil content or the ability to withstand high winds or particular pests.
Pioneer Hi-Bred, Funk Brothers, DeKalb, and Pfister–all except Pioneer based in Illinois–dominated the burgeoning seed market through the 50s, together accounting for half of total sales, with dozens of small companies accounting for the rest. By 1994 Pioneer had 44 percent of the market, with the rest divided among 300 or so companies, but a flurry of mergers and buyouts during the 90s drastically shrank that number, as many seed companies were swallowed up by big conglomerates.
By the summer of 2000, Corbin’s employer, Novartis, was reportedly the world’s largest supplier of farm chemicals and its third-largest supplier of hybrid corn seed; Pioneer, a DuPont company, was still first in seed sales. Last fall Novartis merged with Zeneca Agrochemicals and became a new company, Syngenta Seeds.
Corbin used to run detasseling crews for Ciba Seeds, which had bought Funks. Then Ciba merged with another company to form Novartis, and Corbin began to work for them. “I’ve got a whole closet full of hats,” he jokes, referring to all the free baseball caps his ever-changing employers give him each summer.
Novartis, like many other seed producers, now crosses some of its hybrids with genetically modified seeds to create lines that are deadly to corn borer larvae and other caterpillars. Corbin’s kids don’t seem to care about such controversial issues.
On Friday there’s a new girl, Natalie, who’s about 14 and doesn’t seem to know anyone but Tim. She’s wearing a T-shirt that says “Focus” on its back and has a woman’s face with volleyballs for pupils on the front.
Roger notices that the volleyball eyes sort of line up with her breasts. “Where’re your balls?” he asks her, which starts a couple of the other boys riffing on the concept.
Natalie tells them to shut up each time, at first smiling, then smiling less, then threatening to shove her roguing hook up the butt of the next boy who opens his mouth. They keep at it until she stops roguing her block and just starts walking fast.
“Hey Natalie!” her foreman yells after her, but she doesn’t look back. “Natalie! I’m sorry!” The other guys stop to watch. “Aw, she’s pissed, man,” the foreman says, sounding a little sorry, a little worried.
As we get on the bus to head to another field, Joe asks another boy, “So did you have sex with her?”
“No,” the boy says, seeming bored with the question.
“Why not? Everyone else has.”
Susie sits next to me on the bus. She says she never feels threatened by the sexual comments she hears on this job, but she admits they sometimes bother her. “Like today, Joe was complaining because he hadn’t had sex in two days,” she says. “I haven’t had sex in 14 years. That should wait until marriage. They talk the same at school.” There isn’t much talk about drugs, though Susie says kids in the area can get a wide variety, including crack and locally produced methamphetamine.
Toward the end of the day, Roger and Tim and another boy hatch a plan. “She’s new,” Roger says. “We have to initiate her.”
On the bus home, Natalie sits in back with the rowdier boys and joins their conversation. When she, Tim, and Roger get off at Indianola, Roger douses her from behind with water from a jug. She smiles and after a 15-second chase douses him back.
On Saturday neither Tim nor Tara shows up for work. Natalie doesn’t either, and she won’t be back again. Two new girls, Lisa and Nicky, get on the bus at Ridge Farm. They both look a little nervous and entirely too young for this job.
Lisa, who is Jim’s sister, starts talking the moment she steps into her block. She says she and Nicky are both 13 and will enter eighth grade in the fall. “Nicky’s a cheerleader, and she’s part of the popular group,” she chirps. “But she’s not stuck-up like a lot of them, are you Nicky?”
“I don’t think so,” Nicky says matter-of-factly.
“I’m not popular,” Lisa continues cheerfully. “I’m kind of by myself.” She says her father, the superintendent of a local school district, is making her rogue and detassel because he did it every summer as a kid, but she misses a lot of rogues as she chatters.
She and Nicky move ahead, and Corbin’s son Justin starts describing the half-acre patch of strawberries he planted, tended, harvested, and sold to local customers earlier in the summer. He says he’s tracked agricultural markets since he was nine and would like to be either a farmer or a Chicago commodities broker when he grows up.
He also talks about the local residents, almost all of whom are white. He says that many of them are racist but not all and that most seem to be getting used to the large annual influx of migrant Hispanic detasselers. The migrants keep to themselves, he adds, living in housing a local seed company provides and only occasionally showing up at the local stores for gas or a few groceries, yet the locals frequently blame them when something’s stolen.
A couple of hours later Joe is sitting on the bus waiting for the other kids to finish their blocks so everyone can go on to the next set of fields. He complains to Sungail that he’s on probation until March 2002.
“March 2002? That’s a long probation,” she says. “What’d you do?”
“Oh, it’s a long story,” he says.
“Go ahead,” she says. “I’ve got lots of time.”
“It’s stupid,” he says. “I was playing with fire, and the neighbor thought the house was on fire and called the fire department. When they got there they said I was trying to burn down the house.”
The day has turned hot and humid by the time we reach the next field, and halfway into the first through Lisa complains that she’s hot and dizzy. She says her brother, who’s supervising at the far end of the field, won’t believe her. Sure enough, when she reaches the end Jim dismissively says, “She’s OK,” and tells her to keep working.
“See, he won’t let me!” she protests. But she agrees to try to finish the round and seems to find plenty of energy for talking while she works. Nicky works steadily and quietly the whole day.
Justin begins to wheeze a bit in the middle of the next through and stops a couple of times to catch his breath. He says it’s nothing, just his asthma acting up a bit, but his father takes his place for the last couple rounds of the day.
Lisa tells Corbin she might not be able to work tomorrow because she has to help in the nursery at church. Corbin says that’s OK, but reminds her that kids get an extra dollar an hour for working Sundays.
“It all depends on whether I can convince my dad that church is more important than roguing,” she says.
“Well, I’ve known your dad for several years,” Corbin says, “and I think I know what he’ll say.”
Lisa smiles sheepishly and says, “He’ll say roguing’s more important.”
“I think so,” Corbin says with a chuckle.
On the bus ride home a young boy in camouflage pants walks down the aisle offering everyone some of his Doritos. “When I cash my check I’m gonna get some CDs,” he says. “I don’t have any. I’m gonna get Korn, Metallica, Godsmack–I don’t know what else.” A couple of the other boys say they’re going to get music and clothes too, but they also plan to save some of their earnings so they can buy cars when they turn 16.
Eighteen kids show up on Sunday, including Tara, Lisa, and Nicky. At the end of the first through, Tara flirts with Jim, but he ignores her. She flirts with Justin, saying she’d like to be a farmer’s wife, but he ignores her too.
Tara says she’s getting us all pizzas from the local restaurant where she works on the days when she isn’t roguing. Someone goes to pick them up, and everyone enjoys the treat, thanking her repeatedly for her generosity. They’re all in a festive mood, and they end up taking an extra-long lunch break. At one point she confides to me that she and a friend at the restaurant are stealing the pizzas.
On Monday morning a bunch of new kids get on at Ridge Farm, increasing the size of the group by a third. It’s humid and overcast, but the corn is dry. The low air pressure has sucked off the dew, a predictor of rain. “Your lawn does the same thing,” says Corbin.
He reviews his bad-weather safety procedures for the kids. He’ll watch the sky and listen to the weather radio, and if there’s a report of lightning or high winds he’ll blow a small air horn. “Come back to the bus,” he says. “Don’t go hiding under a tree.”
A few years ago his crews were hit by a fast-moving storm. “We were watching this big thundercloud coming,” says Sungail. “It was gonna pass us. We got them in that field, and it all of a sudden came toward us–lightning, thunder. We were everywhere trying to get those kids out of that field. Many of them ran to the buses, but some of them were clear on the other end.”
As the wind, rain, and lightning intensified, Corbin ran through the field in search of missing kids. He found part of Jim’s crew, but not Jim. “I’m thinking the worst,” Corbin says. “I get to the end, I find him underneath a tree. I said, ‘Jim, I’m gonna walk back through. You wanna walk back through with me?’ I didn’t have a radio, I’d left the phone–everything went wrong. He said, ‘No, I’m scared.’ I said, ‘There’s a ditch right there.’ It was ten-foot deep. I said, ‘You get down in that ditch. I don’t care if it rains four inches. Stay down in that ditch, and we’re gonna bring a bus.'” No one was hurt, and the storm blew over.
This morning the clouds quickly dissipate, and the rain never materializes. By afternoon it’s sunny and 87 degrees. Despite the humidity, the kids are full of energy, filling the air with plans for what they’ll buy soon, what activities they’ll join at school, where they might play sports or go swimming today after work. The younger girls sing Sesame Street songs, boy-band songs, and songs they’ve made up.
The girls’ and Joe’s and Bill’s crews emerge from their blocks at the same time and head for the watercooler. Joe and a couple of the other boys lob tepidly naughty insults at one another, but barely acknowledge the presence of the girls. And the girls seem to care less about the boys’ conversation than about how long Jim will allow them to slouch around before sending them back into the corn.
During the next break the younger girls sit in a circle on the ground, excitedly creating “Cornelia dolls” out of husked, immature ears of corn and silk, twisting and tying corn leaves into dresses. “This one cut all her hair off and became a punk and moved to New York City to become a slut,” Nicky says, showing off her doll’s buzz cut.
Scott calls Justin a peckerhead several times, and Sungail overhears him. “Hey guys, it’s time to cut out the language!” she says.
“Since when is ‘pecker’ language?” says Scott, which sends some younger boys into a round of impressed laughter.
Everyone’s eating ice cream on the bus home. The boys keep jokingly asking Susie how they could kill themselves. Susie snaps at them to stop, then tells me quietly that her friend asked her that same question the other day. Susie told the girl she thought maybe drinking antifreeze would do the trick, not realizing that her friend was suicidal. The girl took her advice. She didn’t die, but she’s still in intensive care and might be permanently blinded.
Wednesday, July 12, is the first day of detasseling. Because so many more kids are taking the buses, Corbin is now riding along with Sungail. When the kids at the back get too rowdy he’ll turn in his seat and survey them for several seconds. If that doesn’t work, he’ll get up and walk casually down the aisle and sit in a seat near them. His older brother, Sam, a science teacher at Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School who’s helping oversee the detasseling, is supervising on a second bus.
As the 69 kids arrange themselves into crews at the edge of the first field, Corbin reviews the rules. His tone is as calm as ever, but his words are sterner than usual. “You report to work rain or shine,” he says. “You must wear shoes….Those that want to smoke, you’re gonna have to be off by yourselves. And only smoke in the end rows–no smoking in the field….About the quickest way to get dismissed out here is to throw something….This is not totally like school. This is a job. You get paid for it, and you can be dismissed for it. If you do me a good job out here, I’ll give you a good reference….This job is gonna get done by somebody. If we can’t do this job properly, they’re gonna bus people in from Mexico to do the job.”
One boy mutters, “That’s what they’re made for.”
The kids are supposed to walk down their rows, grab the immature, leaf-shrouded tassels at the top of stalks that have been designated females, yank them off, and drop them on the ground. Machines called cutters and pullers often run through the fields first; they can pull the tassels off the taller corn but not the shorter plants.
During the first through, the five girls in one crew talk about fireworks, guns, drinking, and how horny one girl’s parents are. Tanya, who’s 13, says she loves sex and alcohol, then starts to elaborate. Barb, Tanya’s sister, a hefty 17-year-old who plans to join the navy when she graduates, says she’s a virgin and proud of it, then adds that she can’t wait to be surrounded by “hot navy men.”
They keep missing a lot of tassels, especially those on suckers–offshoots of larger plants or freestanding corn that’s shorter than the rest–which also have to be pulled so the females won’t be contaminated by their pollen. The girls are also moving much slower than any other crew. When they reach the end of the through, Andrew and Pam Taylor, a new supervisor who’s also a teacher, say chidingly that they took two hours and 15 minutes to finish.
After a short break, the girls head back in to finish the round, but they’re still missing way too many tassels. About halfway through the block, Maria doubles over, holds her stomach, and starts crying. She says she’s sick and can’t continue, but she finally agrees to finish this round if she can have help from the foreman. A few minutes later Tanya squats down, placing one hand on the ground and the other on a cornstalk for support. She says she’s having a hard time breathing, but she too agrees to finish the round if she gets a little extra help.
When they finish the round, the two of them clock out, though they’re stuck here until the bus leaves if they can’t persuade someone to come pick them up. When kids are sick Corbin often calls their parents, and sometimes he takes them home himself if he’s sure they’ll be safe unsupervised. The kids usually are allowed to return to work the next day, just as they are when they leave early for a baseball game or an orthodontist appointment. Tanya comes back, Maria doesn’t.
Barb and Linda, a 13-year-old with blond braids, are moving quickly now but getting too far ahead of the rest of the crew and missing lots of tassels. The foreman sees them throwing tassels at each other and laughing, and yells at them to walk back through the block to pull what they missed.
“How ’bout no!” Linda yells, her hands on her hips.
“Hey, listen to your foreman!” Justin shouts from a couple of blocks over.
The two keep moving ahead, but soon a crew of boys emerges from the other direction. They’ve finished their through, and the field doesn’t have any more blocks to pull, so they’ve been sent into this one to “pull the girls out,” allowing them to turn around and work back toward the buses.
The next morning as the bus passes through Indianola, Corbin points out a pretty little house, the place where he grew up. “Believe it or not,” he says, “we raised hogs and chickens in the backyard. Our neighbors had a milk cow. A lot of people in town had animals. You can’t do that in town now.”
A reconfigured crew of four of the younger girls moves into the first block. Mostly they talk about sports. Nancy, a blond 13-year-old with braces, runs two miles every day and wants to play football with the boys when she gets to high school.
“Hey Nancy,” asks Lisa, “if you could, A, cure all the diseases of the world and bring world peace or, B, play basketball, what would you do?”
“I would do B first and then A if I had time left,” Nancy answers without hesitation. She’s made bunny ears on her hat using corn leaves and her ponytail elastic. “I always make my hair weird at school,” she says proudly. The other girls approve and gradually add corn leaves and foxtails to their hair accessories and hats.
During lunchtime they sit near a crew that includes Steve, who’s nearly 16. He’s taking guitar lessons and hopes someday to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II. He started detasseling three years ago. “There was no other job I could get,” he says, adding that there are things he hates about it: “The smoking, the cursing, mile-and-a-half-long fields that haven’t been picked yet.” But he keeps coming back. “It’s kind of fun once you get good at it. There’s a lot of camaraderie down here.”
His younger sister, Kelly, who’s 13, started detasseling last summer. “The first year I liked not seeing my sister so much,” he says. “The second year I liked seeing my sister hot and dirty. She just looks so small when you get her full of mud and stuff. It’s just kind of funny. She flops around.”
Joe, who’s become a foreman, is making a big deal of the fact that a new girl on his crew clocked out because she said her chest hurt and she couldn’t breathe–and then went and had a cigarette. He yells it across the field, and later, when he and a bunch of other boys get on the bus, they cough dramatically as they pass her seat. A friend of hers says, “I’m not talking to you anymore. You clocked out.” She doesn’t respond.
Joe berates, threatens, and roughs up the smaller, younger boys, yet they’re still drawn to him like groupies. “You’re gonna get it on the bus, Corbin!” he’ll yell at Justin, who sits in the back with him anyway. And Susie usually winds up in the crew next to his.
Asked how Joe is doing as a foreman, Corbin says, “I don’t know. He’s been in some trouble. I’m not gonna label him a bad kid.” But a couple of days later he says, “He’s got his faults, but you can go through his block and it’ll be clean. And he’s here every day.”
Corbin usually fires a kid or two each summer. He won’t have to this year, though he does say, “Some fired themselves.” Sam Corbin says his brother gives every kid a chance: “He doesn’t go through the list of applicants and say, ‘This one can’t do it.'” Sam says he’s seen kids’ behavior improve at school after a summer of working in the fields. “A kid who works his way up to foreman and has gained that much responsibility has confidence that they can do something. Some of them may not be doing well in school, and then they pick up and become better students–they grow up.”
On Friday morning Kelly tells everyone in her crew that when she was working with Susie the other day, Susie kept calling her “ass face” and said she’d beat her up. She says Susie also wrote Ass Face next to her name on the sign-in sheet that Corbin and Sungail pass around the buses each morning.
Lisa sympathizes, then says she’s also bothered that some kids call each other “faggot” all the time. “I think God made some people gay,” she says, “so I hate it when some people discriminate about that and call people names.”
Brenda, who’s 13, sings a song she made up. Afterward Lisa says, “Brenda’s such a good songwriter. I wish I could write good songs. I wrote a bunch of Christian songs and rock songs, but they all suck.” She sings one of her refrains in a raspy voice, her head jerking to the beat: “God rules, the devil sucks! God rules, the devil sucks!”
Kelly leads the girls in some songs she learned at church camp, including one that has the line “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, oh yeah, let my people go,” sung to the tune of “Louie Louie.” They drift into songs by 98 Degrees, Britney Spears, and Eminem. They know all the words to “The Real Slim Shady” and sing it repeatedly.
“God, shut up!” a boy in a nearby crew yells. Other kids beg them to stop too, which only makes them sing louder.
The afternoon gets hot and sticky, prompting Nancy to take off her shirt and work in a bright pink sports bra. A minute later Kelly takes her shirt off to work in a much less substantial bra. Brenda and Lisa both follow suit, revealing thin, stretchy bras obviously not designed to be worn alone. They all giggle.
Nancy says the other day the boys teased them about not wearing shirts. “I don’t see what the big deal is. They don’t have to wear shirts.”
“It’s just like wearing a swimming suit,” says Kelly.
Brenda complains of sunburn and corn rash on her upper body, but she doesn’t put her shirt back on.
Most of the time the corn is up to their chins, but they hit a long patch of water-stunted corn just when Steve’s crew is working parallel to them four or five blocks away. “Kelly, put your shirt on,” Steve yells at his sister with a tone of fatigued annoyance. “You’re gonna get corn poisoning!”
Kelly ignores him. The girls hurry through a swath of two-foot suckers, and when the foreman makes them return to pull the tassels they missed, they wind up flanked on both sides by boys’ crews. “This is embarrassing,” Lisa mutters to the other girls, who all agree and sheepishly pull their T-shirts on until they’re back in the tall corn.
On Saturday about half of the kids show up and start cleaning up a couple of the fields they pulled the first day of detasseling. The first two rounds go quickly for the crew that includes Lisa, Nicky, Nancy, and Kelly. But during the second two rounds, two of the rows in each block have tassels on almost every stalk–except for the ones that can be seen by the supervisors from the ends of the field.
Kelly says her brother’s practicing his guitar today and will play the Creed song “With Arms Wide Open” at church tomorrow to celebrate his 16th birthday. She says their parents, who served in the navy, are Quakers.
“I think God is like chicken,” Lisa says. “Some people like it fried, some people like it grilled, some like it sauteed.” She continues listing ways God and chicken can be enjoyed, squinting into the distance as she thinks.
Corbin says the kids often resent him for making them work later than they’d like, but he’s not always the one who decides. He sometimes thinks they’re about done, then gets a call from a Novartis field manager saying that another field is suddenly starting to tassel and has to be pulled immediately or that the crews missed too many rogues or tassels and have to redo a field.
Managers at the Novartis corn handling and storage plant near Paris, Illinois, hire other people to plant, fertilize, spray, and harvest the 5,000 acres of seed corn that Corbin and three other contractors rogue and detassel. Novartis grows 30 different hybrids in this area, and crop specialists from the Paris plant visit the fields frequently throughout the growing season–to see which bugs are drawn to pheromone traps, to schedule pesticide-spraying planes, and to see whether the two breeds of corn in a field are developing at the right pace for them to “nick,” the term for the male-designated breed producing pollen at the same time the female-designated breed’s silk is ready to receive it.
For the next few weeks the Novartis field managers’ primary task in this region will be to drive around inspecting fields after they’ve been rogued and detasseled and deciding whether they’re clean or have to be done again. State inspectors also spot-check fields to determine whether the field is clean enough that the corn can be certified as a pure hybrid. They all use radios and cell phones to keep in touch.
“Before you head to Newman, you might block 250 and 251,” a manager told Corbin one afternoon. “The state inspector was there and the middle part of the field is popping up.”
“OK,” said Corbin, nodding.
“Things looked pretty good,” said the manager. “Except for the short corn.”
On Sunday, July 16, Corbin says that Wednesday will probably be the last day of detasseling, but he doesn’t want the kids to know. “If they know, it’s like the last day of school,” he says. “They get pretty squirrelly.”
Many of the kids are missing today. Alice, Diana, and Rich wind up in a crew with Monica, the girl Joe made fun of the other day for having a smoke shortly after she’d clocked out sick. She’s blond and fair skinned and keeps her jacket on to ward off sunburn and corn rash.
“Hey Rich,” Bill says from the adjacent block. “Got any chew?”
Rich, who’s 16, always carries a Ziploc bag with chewing tobacco, Salems, and a lighter.
“Naw, I’m outta chew,” he says.
Bill settles for a Salem to smoke later.
This field is wide but only a half mile long, so each through ends quickly. Within half an hour they’re on their third one. Monica starts to complain that it’s too hot today and that Corbin should take everyone home. Actually it’s one of the cooler sunny days they’ve worked, with a pleasant breeze. She says she feels faint and queasy, but agrees to finish the round.
The foreman asks Rich if he’d rather work on Bill’s crew and be with other boys. Rich seems to like the idea, but Diana and Alice protest, because they’d be trading for Nicky and Nancy.
“No way! We don’t want to work with them,” Alice says.
“Yeah, I hate them,” Diana says. “I’ll kick their asses. They think they’re better than everyone else.”
“They’re OK by themselves,” Alice says, “but I can’t stand them when they’re all together.”
So Rich stays and only Nancy moves over. Alice ends up working by her, and after a while they seem to be having occasional cordial conversations.
Diana tells me that her father beats her and her siblings with a belt and that they’re starting to hit him back. She also says that her brother hits his two-year-old girl too hard and that the girl is developing “an attitude.” She adds, “My brother’s in a gang,” then explains that the gang isn’t in a small town but in Danville, the nearby city of 34,000, which has had gangs for years.
After the break Diana and Rich walk together in the same path, pulling adjacent rows. They bicker, flirt, and give each other little pushes, but mostly just keep their torsos or upper arms in contact as they walk. They both start missing tassels and keep falling behind.
After lunch the foreman gives Rich to Bill’s crew in return for Nicky, which causes Diana to sulk until it’s time for the bus ride home. Then she skips onto the bus, plops herself into a seat, and starts arranging her belongings.
Rich and a few other kids step onto the bus and walk down the aisle. He passes her without making eye contact and takes a seat with another boy toward the back.
After a couple of minutes Diana turns and looks at him. “Hey Rich, come sit by me,” she says, trying to sound casual. He doesn’t answer, so she says it again, sounding a little annoyed.
“Uh, no thanks,” Rich finally says, as if he’d just noticed her. “I’m gonna sit back here.”
Diana turns and stares quietly out the window until the bus arrives at her stop.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nadia Oehlsen.