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My only goal was to keep up with Ray in the row beside me and not fall behind. The corn leaves sliced across my face, arms and legs. Foolishly, I had on a short sleeved shirt and shorts. Ray on the other hand had every inch of skin covered, save for his face, and even there he had a net to pull down over his eyes and nose.
Of course, I was only there to go one round with Ray the checker, not spend 12 hours in the field like him and his fellow detasselers. I wanted to see what detasseling was like in 2020. (They have porta potties now.) I had rogued and hoed corn as a teenager, and had some vivid memories - clouds of mosquitoes so thick they would fly in your mouth and nose, breath-stealing heat, and a blistered nose from sunburn (it wasn't cool to wear a hat). But the money was good: the only spending money we had, actually. Detasseling was a summer rite of passage in small town Iowa, a way to get in shape for two-a-day football practice.
Ray stopped with his arm outstretched in front of my face, pointing at a cornstalk beside my head. 'Tassel,” he said in broken English. 'Toe soul.” He gave a hand motion like pulling it.
I took a hold of the tassel and pulled up. It came loose and I stared at it. I could not even tell it was a tassel. How Ray, whose name is Raymundo Camacho, could spot it as we speed walked through the field, I had no idea. We were doing clean-up work. The cutter machine had been through, then the wheel puller, then the first wave of hand detasselers, and now clean up. Rows had to be 99.98% clean - less than two tassels per milelong row. I know five star businesses that don't have a quality rate that high. Ray is a checker, the person who ensures that each person on the crew is not missing a tassel.
I spotted a tassel in the row to my right. I reached for it, but Ray stopped me. 'Male,” he said, and held up his two way radio. He talked in Spanish to his foreman back at the refurbished school bus, then held the radio up for me to hear. The foreman told me in English that there is one male row for every four female, and that only the female seed corn was detasseled so that it doesn't self pollinate.
At the end of the round, I was just pleased that my 72-year-old body was able to keep up with the tall, lanky 28-year old Raymundo. The foreman, Greg Martinez, explained to me that their home base is in Florida. He's been coming up to Mt. Pleasant for 10 years. Each year their company, Martinez Brothers, hires 300 H2 workers from Mexico. They start out in Florida harvesting 4,000 acres of celery and 5,000 acres of iceberg and romaine lettuce. Then they come up to Georgia to harvest sweet corn. Then it's Iowa for detasseling. Then Louisiana for sugarcane.
'I know what you're thinking,” Martinez said. 'No, we did not bring COVID with us. We were out of Florida before the second wave hit. Out of 300 employees, only three came down with COVID. I rented them hotel rooms and quarantined them, with a guy bringing them food for 14 days. It was nasty, like a flu you've never seen. They lost over 20 pounds. But they cured up. My brother must have sent me a million masks. When we're in the bus, taking them to Walmart to cash their checks, they all wear masks. But not in the fields. It's so hot you can hardly breathe without a mask. We have digital thermometers. If anyone has a fever, they get sent home. I have Ana from Little Mexico in Mt. Pleasant bring them lunch and dinner. They eat good and work hard.”
My day was over, and it wasn't 8 a.m. Ray and his buddies had a good 10 hours left. Something moved in my shirt pocket. I pulled out a Japanese beetle. I flipped it back in the cornfield and went home for a shower and breakfast, thinking I didn't have it so bad.