In the still early morning hours, about 12 bleary-eyed teenagers board a school bus in Florence.
The Lambton County teens are doing what generations of teens have done before them; waking up in the early morning hours to head to the fields for what may be one of the most difficult jobs of the summer – corn detassling.
The Florence-area teens won’t be working in Lambton County – there is very little seed corn grown here anymore. Instead they’ll join about 250 other teens working the fields near Tilbury for Maisex Seeds.
They head into the dew-soaked fields by 7am to be drenched as the pull the corn tassels which have been left behind by the machinery which now does about 80 to 90 percent of the detassling according to Vince Bourassa, the production supervisor.
Bourassa knows what the teens are going through; he detassled corn 30 years ago when most of it was done by hand.
The job of corn detassling has changed significantly since then and it is about to undergo another big change.
Dave Baute, president of Maizex, says seed producers have genetically engineered seed corn which doesn’t need detassling because the female plant is sterile.
Seed companies are trying to get approval from the Chinese to use the GMO seed before rolling it out. Baute expects that will be in about two years.
He says when that happens, a lot of young people will have to find other work for the summer.
“The whole industry is working on ways not to detassle corn,” says Baute. “It will be a sad day because a lot of kids depend on it for summer employment. We put a lot of kids through school over the last 30 years.”
Baute says it is not necessarily about cutting costs. “It’s not costs, it is the liability. We have good kids, great kids…but there is a risk of them getting hurt in the field…or having heat stroke. We’d feel pretty bad if something went wrong.”
But for now, the teens toil in the wet fields in the morning and the hot fields at night – making about $13 an hour for four weeks before taking a well deserved break before school starts.