How old do you have to be?
To work for NATS, you must be 13 or older by the time the season begins. (We say July 1st for simplicity’s sake).
Although the legal age in Nebraska is 12, some seed corn companies have older age restrictions and require that anyone who enters their fields be at least 13. Unfortunately, we CANNOT make exceptions to the age rule, because it would cause us to not be in good standing with the seed corn companies. Even if your birthday is towards the end of July, we will still not be able to hire you because you will have missed out on safety and training procedures that take place at the beginning of the season. Thank you for understanding.
Although some detasseling crews do hire 12-year-olds, we would offer this bit of advice for parents: Do check the company out carefully. Our experience has been that companies who appear eager to hire 12-year-olds must do so because they do not have enough returning workers from the prior year to fill out their crew.
Also, please be aware that our crews are made of junior high, high school and college-aged workers. We do not hire adult post-college detasselers, except for supervisory positions. If you are post-college age and are interested in detasseling, we suggest you contact one of the temporary agencies in town, as they sometimes put together adult detasseling crews.
When does the season start?
Generally, the season starts somewhere around July 10. It can start a few days earlier or later than this.
How long does the season last?
A typical detasseling season lasts between two to three weeks. With the increase of corn production, we do sometimes see the season stretching into a fourth week.
How much do you pay?
At NATS, we start out at a guaranteed $9.00 per hour. We have incentives for good and perfect attendance, as well as incentives for experienced detasselers. In addition, we have another incentive in place for the top five workers on each bus. Our clean-up crew is comprised of college-aged workers and exceptional high school detasselers, and they are some of the highest paid detasselers in the state.
Our field management is specifically designed so that the crew does not have a lot of unpaid down time. Because we encourage you to have one day of rest per week, most of our workers earn some type of bonus. In fact, on average less than 10% of our crew will end up making minimum wage for the season.
How much can my son or daughter make during the season?
Because we are involved in agricultural work, it is very difficult to predict how much you can make during any given season. Some seasons are more spread out, giving us a longer period in which to do our work. Other seasons can be very compacted, and it doesn’t leave us a lot of time to get the job done.
However, our goal at NATS is to try to provide between 60-80 hours of work for detasselers on our regular buses. For our clean-up crew (called the Force), our goal is that they will come home with at least $2400 for the season.
How do you get on the clean-up crew?
The clean-up crew is comprised of 16-year-olds and up, all of whom have detasseled before. If you have been a Top 5 detasseler from one of our regular buses and you are at least 16, you qualify to be on the clean-up crew. This is due in part to the way the labor laws are written, which allow 16-year-olds and older to work more hours. Last year, half of our clean-up crew was in college–and the average season’s earnings for those with good attendance on the crew was right around $2500.
How can I find a good detasseling company for my child?
I think the key to finding a good detasseling company is knowing what questions to ask.
Talk to teens who have detasseled before, and talk to their parents. At NATS, my philosophy is that the detasselers will not be asked to do something we adult supervisors are not also willing to do ourselves. In other words, we work shoulder to shoulder with them in the fields. Listed below are several things you can do to make sure your teen is hired by a reputable company.
- Make sure you know who will be working with your teen in the fields. Do the adults actually work in the field with the crew or are they at the front of the field, or simply checking rows after the crew has been through?
- Ask other parents whom they might recommend.
- Make sure you can understand their pay system. If it’s confusing or vague, this can lead to disappointment. Sometimes companies talk about what their highest paid worker earned last year, but this is generally not representative of what the average worker on that crew earned.
- Beware of companies that seem to be aggressively recruiting your son or daughter (Better companies do not have to do much recruiting, as they have a substantial number of returnees. Companies that have high turnover must recruit heavily the following year).
- Make sure you know whether or not your teen will lose a perfect attendance bonus if he or she chooses not to work on Sunday.
- Many companies engage in what I call “overhiring.” A company hires more workers than it actually needs to complete the number of acres that are contracted, and simply rotates detasselers around during the season. The goal is to find out who the very best workers are and then give them lots of hours; however, this leads to great disappointment for many on the crew because they may only get three or four days of work. NATS does not engage in the practice of overhiring; once you have a spot on a NATS bus, that spot is yours for the entirety of the season.
- Call the Nebraska Workforce Development Office (formerly known as the Nebraska Department of Labor). Be aware that they cannot specifically tell you which company to work for. However, if you have a particular detasseling company in mind, they can give you general feedback about that company. This is the office that handles complaints brought against detasseling companies during and after the season. Their number is (402) 471-3712.
Where are the fields located?
The fields that we will be going to are located anywhere between Milford and York, Nebraska, both south and north of Interstate 80. For the Omaha crew, most of our acres are located in the Elkhorn Valley near Waterloo, as well as in Saunders County near Wahoo.
Do you work for just one farmer?
No. We will be on many, many fields during the course of the season. Seed corn companies utilize farmers and their fields to plant specific varieties of corn. The seed corn companies then offer contracts to detasseling companies in order to perform detasseling services for them.
How do I know when to pick my son or daughter up?
NATS has implemented a Text Message System that earned the award of Best New Practice in the Field some years ago for one of our seed companies that we contract with. The length of the days do vary, depending upon how many acres need to be done and how far away the fields are. At NATS, we want to make sure that no one is left stranded in a parking lot after a long day’s work. When our buses pull out of the field at the end of the day, the bus assistant will send out a text message letting parents know what time they will be back to the bus site. Parents will be given instructions on how to sign up for the text message system prior to the season. Don’t text? No problem. Just make sure your detasseler uses the bus assistant’s cell phone to give you a call and let you know when he or she will be back. Pick-up times are generally between 1:00 and 4:30 p.m., with rare instances of it being earlier or later than that.
We do pay our bus assistants to stay at the site until everyone is picked up, so we do appreciate you being prompt in picking your son or daughter up.
Does my son or daughter bring their own lunch?
Yes. We recommend that you pack a large lunch and plenty of snacks. We leave the lunches on the bus, but take snacks down to the field with us. We recommend avoiding foods that can spoil in the heat, such as mayonnaise, meats, dairy products, etc. Detasselers often mention that they are very hungry for fruit, and also enjoy something salty, like chips or pretzels, in order to replenish salt they’ve lost through sweating. We do not recommend taking salt tablets.
How much water should my son or daughter bring?
We recommend using a gallon container of some sort. You can even freeze milk jugs full of water if you don’t want to buy one. Clearly label your jug with your name in permanent marker. Also, freezing larger “ice cubes” will help your water stay colder longer. You will carry this jug down to the field with you and leave it on the front side of the field. We also recommend taking a smaller water bottle with you up and down the rows to help keep you hydrated. Many detasselers find that camelbacks are extremely helpful. (There are inexpensive versions of these at Wal-Mart). We will have plenty of extra drinking water on the bus as well. Pop and other caffeinated drinks can actually dehydrate your body, and we do not recommend drinking these.
What about restrooms?
On every field we will go to, there will be at least one port-a-potty for you to use. Generally they are equipped with water for handwashing and soap. If not, we have handwashing water and soap provided for detasselers on the back of the bus. We recommend you use the port-a-potty when we first arrive at the field or during breaks.
What kind of adult supervision is there on the field?
Every NATS bus will have one bus driver and one bus assistant. Both of these supervisors will be in the field with the crew at all times. When the crew is working, they will see an adult supervisor approximately every 30 minutes. This level of accountability is important both for safety and behavioral issues. My supervisory staff is very carefully chosen. I do not place ads for these people, but use networking and references to make sure quality individuals are in place. Every bus driver must go through a screening process, which includes drug testing.
In addition, every bus is equipped with a cell phone. I am in constant communication with the buses throughout the day, and emergency numbers are laminated onto cards for field personnel to carry with them at all times in the field.
I heard your crews fill up very fast. How can my son or daughter get a spot on your crew?
The buses do fill up fast. On March 1 we activate the online application. Most of the buses will be full within two weeks. Even though we receive a lot of applications on March lst, many times teens fill out the application too fast and not very well. When I look over the applications, I look very carefully at the questions about their chores/work/volunteer experiences, as well as how they answer, “Tell me why you want to detassel.” I also look at how many days they’re available to work during the season, and if they meet the height/age requirement.
Although I can’t do personal interviews with everyone, we do read every application. For example, if it’s getting pretty full on the buses and I have to choose between two seemingly equal applications, I start looking at the small stuff. Which applicant followed my directions about using correct punctuation on the application? (Detasseling is detail work, so details matter. When you fill out the application as if you’re texting, I have to go back in and correct it all so I can use it for mailings). Hate to say it, but again, if you’ve chosen to identify yourself with a raunchy email address, I’ll choose the applicant who sounds more legit. I know you may mean it as a joke, but to a prospective employer it spells trouble.
Of course, preference is given to detasselers who have worked for me before or who have experience from other companies. Preference is also given to 14-year-olds over 13-year-olds. Around April 1st, I will send out acceptance letters. It’s always the case that when someone receives their acceptance letter in April that something has changed since they signed up at the beginning of March. They’re now going to play baseball or go on a trip or something, and so then we’ll have some more openings, etc. I try to send out more acceptance letters on a weekly basis after the first main batch goes on, constantly reviewing the applications on my waiting list and the new ones that keep coming in. If we are full, we will place your application on our waiting list and you will be notified by mail or email if and when something opens up.
As a word of caution, I receive calls every summer from disappointed teens and parents who signed up to work with other companies but only got to work two or three days. It is common practice in this industry to “overhire”—that is, to hire more teens than can actually fit on the bus. The contractor then rotates detasselers throughout the season.
NATS does not operate this way. Once you have been notified that you have a spot on a NATS bus, you will have that spot and no one can take that spot away from you, provided that you are performing the work in keeping with NATS standards.
Because of the way that NATS is set up, we sincerely ask that you communicate with us EARLY ON if your summer plans change and you are no longer able to detassel. We would like to be able to offer your spot on the bus to someone else. Failure to let us know will result in not having future work opportunities with us. But more importantly than that, if you fail to communicate it means someone else might not have a job who really needed one.
Where do you get your workers?
NATS operates solely by word of mouth. We have been very blessed to have an incredible group of young people working for us, many of whom come back every year. Good workers tell other good workers, and that’s how this company has been built. Our workers come from the Lincoln and Omaha areas, as well as surrounding communities. Many parents are willing to drive a little further to get on one of our crews. We even have parents who send their teens from out-of-state to come live with cousins or grandparents to experience detasseling!
Do you give credit for referring friends?
Yes!! If you recruit a friend to work for us and they fill out an online application, make sure you send me an email with the words REFERRAL in the subject line and let me know the name of your friend that you recruited. For every friend who applies, is accepted and works at least one week in the field with you (does not have to be on the same bus), the person who recruited them will receive a $10 gift certificate to Target by way of thank you. If you recruit five friends, you will receive a $75 gift certificate.
If there is a storm, do you still go out?
Yes. Often weather conditions change quickly. We do work in the rain. However, if there is lightning, we will pull the crew from the field and wait it out. If we sit on the bus to wait out a storm, the rate of pay is current minimum wage.
Do you guarantee a certain number of hours?
No. Because we are in the agriculture business, so many variables regarding the detasseling season make it impossible to guarantee a certain number of hours. However, because NATS does not engage in overhiring, you can be sure that your teen will have an opportunity to work the most hours possible. Also, NATS works hard to divide up the acres so that there is not a great disparity of paid hours between the bus sites.
How do you handle inappropriate language/behaviors on your crew?
NATS seeks to provide a positive working environment for all its employees. We are thankful for each of our employees, whether they be from the public, private or home school sector. We require a high standard of excellence on our crew, and profanity, harassment or other inappropriate behaviors are not allowed. Profane language is grounds for being fired.
Why do you need my son or daughter’s social security number?
In order to legally hire workers, NATS needs every detasseler to fill out a W-4 and an I-9. Both of these forms require social security numbers. The W-4 is for the IRS. While most detasselers can claim an “exempt” status from having income tax withheld, we are still required by law to subtract approximately 7.5% of every paycheck for FICA. NATS also matches that amount, as required by law. We want to assure you that NATS uses great care in handling information in order to prevent identity theft. The I-9 form is for the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that NATS is not hiring illegal aliens. Both the W-4 and I-9s are filled out at our orientation meetings.
How tall do you need to be?
The corn is generally between 5′ and 6′ tall, but some varieties can grow to over 7′. This is why we must enforce a minimum 5’2″ height requirement.
What time do the buses leave in the morning?
The buses leave at 5:30 a.m. For those who get on at the Milford Exit at the gas station, the bus usually arrives between 6 and 6:15 a.m.
How many days a week do you work?
We work six days a week, Monday through Saturday. A small, select crew does go out on Sundays to do clean up work that is required by the seed corn companies, but most of the crew have Sundays off. We find that this policy of giving workers a day of rest makes it so much more likely that they will receive an attendance bonus of some kind.
What is detasseling, anyway?
Detasseling is the painstaking process by which we help to create hybrid corn. The farmer will plant rows of two different varieties of corn right next to each other. We remove the tassels at the top of the corn plant off of one of the variety of corns, so that it can’t pollinate itself. We don’t pull the tassels on the other variety of corn, and it becomes the “pollinator.” The pollen from these plants falls onto the silk of the ears of the detasseled corn, thereby completing the crossbreeding process.
Detasseling requires a very high level of quality work in order to ensure that we have pure seed. In order to pass a field, we can only miss about one in four hundred tassels! That’s why a detasseling crew typically will go through the same field three times (on different days) before a field will be passed by the seed corn company. At NATS, we have built a solid reputation for high quality work, and often pass our fields after two pulls. A “pull” is what we call going through the field, and you’ll hear us talking about “first pull,” “second pull,” or “third pull.” This simply is referring to whether it’s the first time we’ve been through the field, the second time, or on some occasions, the third.
Nowadays the seed corn companies will “machine” the field before we even get to it. This means that they will cut off the tops of the rows of corn that we are to detassel. Machining the field will remove up to 80% of the tassels. This means that we don’t have to pull a tassel off of every plant, but we’re constantly walking and watching to see which plants the machine “missed.”
What day does detasseling start?
The detasseling season begins somewhere around July 10, give or take a couple of days. We will only get about 48 hours’ notice from the seed corn companies as to the exact start date, and then we make phone calls to let each crew member know.
Do you have to carry the tassels with you?
No. You simply pull them off the cornstalk and drop them on the ground.
How much water should I bring?
We recommend using a gallon container of some sort. You can even freeze milk jugs full of water if you don’t want to buy one. Clearly label your jug with your name in permanent marker. Also, freezing larger “ice cubes” will help your water stay colder longer. You will carry this jug down to the field with you and leave it on the front side of the field. We also recommend taking a smaller water bottle with you up and down the rows to help keep you hydrated. Many detasselers find that camelbacks are extremely helpful. (There are inexpensive versions of these at Wal-mart). We will have plenty of extra drinking water on the bus as well. Pop and other caffeinated drinks can actually dehydrate your body, and we do not recommend drinking these.
How can I prevent blisters?
Blisters on the feet tend to be one of the common discomforts of detasseling. You can prevent them by following these suggestions.
We recommend wearing very comfortable old tennis shoes, for starters. Don’t wear anything too nice, because you’ll probably end up throwing them away at the end of the season. Work boots do not fare well in the field, because the fields can be very muddy and then the work boots become very heavy and uncomfortable. Flip flops and sandals are not allowed, because a broken-off corn stalk can cause injury if improper footwear is worn.
Also, many, many of our detasselers duct tape their feet. Basically, by wrapping the foot and heel in duct tape right on the skin (not too tight), you eliminate direct friction to the skin. Also, this helps to keep feet a bit drier and less “soggy,” as well as adding some extra support.
How long does the season last?
Usually the season will last three to four weeks. We work hard to rotate the buses around so that each worker will have the opportunity to work roughly the same amount of hours as everyone else.
How long do we work each day?
Usually we will get in about 6 or 7 hours of field work, but we might work anywhere from four to nine hours. Field work hours do not include transportation time to and from the field, lunch break, or transportation in-between fields.
How much can I make during the entire season?
Because this is an agricultural business, we cannot guarantee a certain amount of money that you will make during the season. There are many variables to agricultural work! However, we do guarantee, absolutely, a base wage of $9.00 an hour. We also have different bonuses that you can earn, which you’ll hear about at our information meetings. For first-year detasselers, we try to give them the opportunity to work 60-80 hours during the season. This ensures that everyone who is willing to work on our crew will get the opportunity to have a paycheck they can be proud of.
As a word of caution, don’t be fooled by detasseling companies who promise incredibly large paychecks. I receive many calls each season from disappointed detasselers and parents who were misled. Often these companies have a very small handful of detasselers who receive a decent paycheck, but the vast majority walk away with little to show for their efforts.
When will I be paid?
We will collect the hours that you worked for a two-week period and then turn those hours over to the payroll company that we use. We usually receive checks within a week after that, and then we mail them out right away. To sum up, you’ll receive your first paycheck approximately three weeks after you start detasseling, and then you’ll receive a second check about two weeks later. The second check will have any additional field hours worked (if the season goes into a third week), plus any bonus money that you’ve earned.
It is very important at NATS that you receive your checks in a timely manner, and we work very hard to ensure that this happens. We also have three different people review your hours before we give those hours to the payroll company in order to make sure that we don’t miss anything. Detasselers deserve to be paid for every hour that they work, and we take extra steps to ensure that they are!
What is the per-row pay system that some companies talk about?
There are two main ways that detasseling companies pay their employees, with variations on the theme. One way is the per-row pay system, and the other way is the per-hour system. Each system has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. When I first got into the detasseling business, I was a very big fan of the per-row system. However, the disadvantages quickly began to outweigh the advantages, and I now operate on a per-hour system, plus bonuses.
In order to understand the pay systems, it’s helpful to understand how the detasseling process works. It is generally expected that the same field will need to be gone through three different times in order to pass inspection. On the per-row pay system, detasselers are usually paid a high dollar amount the first time they go through the field, but the second time is substantially less, and some companies don’t pay anything if you have to go through the field a third time. On the per-hour system, you are paid a guaranteed hourly wage no matter what you’re doing.
There are six key disadvantages to the per-row system that I have observed. First of all, detasselers tend to move too quickly through the field and don’t do quality work. Secondly, many detasselers tell me they are very frustrated when they are going through a field for the second or third time, and have to do a row that wasn’t done very well the first time. In essence, they end up getting second-pull pay for first-pull work. Thirdly, there is a lot of unpaid time on a per-row crew. If it’s getting close to the end of the day and you finish your row and there are no rows left for you to do, you often have to go sit on the bus and wait for others to get done, without pay. In addition, if at the end of the day someone doesn’t do their row well, you might have to sit on the bus and wait while they redo their row, without pay; and we haven’t even talked about the time you spend traveling in-between fields, technically without pay. Fourthly, most of the rows are not the same length. Detasselers who have worked on per-row crews have told me that many of the older teens will muscle their way off the bus to make sure and get the short rows at the ends of the fields. And while a contractor may try to give partial credit for a short row or more credit for a longer row, it’s impossible to be fair. Fifthly, there is no incentive to help anyone else on the crew. You aren’t paid if you go back to help gather up water jugs, or help someone finish out their row.
But the sixth disadvantage, which is ultimately why I changed to an hourly pay system, is safety. A per-row system requires that adult supervisors must be at the front of the field keeping track of who did what row and how many, or following after the detasselers to spot check and hopefully make sure rows are being done adequately. My preference is that adult supervisors not be distracted with tracking literally thousands of rows. At NATS, the adult supervisors will not ask the teens to do anything we are not prepared to do ourselves. That means we work right alongside the detasselers, staying together, which cuts out I believe 80 to 90% of behavioral problems which so often plague detasseling crews. We aren’t hampered with having to track thousands of rows or trying to find out who is cheating on their rows and sending them back through. Since we’re right with them, we see immediately if a row is not being done properly and we can take care of it right then and there. We rarely miss any rows on a field, and we don’t lose workers, either.
In order to reward exceptional detasselers on a particular bus, we offer a special bonus at the end of the season to those workers. In addition, if you are at least 16 and you’ve previously earned that bonus, you qualify to be on our special crew, nicknamed The Force. The Force does almost all of the second pull fields for us, and they receive an awesome bonus based upon their ability as a team to get fields to pass on a second pull. And they do a tremendous job at it, too! Last year they passed approximately 2,500 acres on second pull. They also receive bonuses for years of experience, attendance and also by completing the fields in a timely manner. As you can see, the focus is on quality, not in rushing through the field. Per-row companies often go through the same field three times. We’ve even heard of fields having to be gone through five or more times on the per-row system!
I realize that there is probably no perfect system, but having implemented both a per-row payment system and an hourly payment system, I am wholeheartedly convinced that the per-hour system is the way to go. The detasselers will see an adult at least every 30 minutes, if not sooner, there’s lots less down time, and the seed corn companies always give us positive feedback about our quality at the end of the season.
I want to be as straightforward as I can about our payroll system. Integrity matters. Every year I receive comments from detasselers who were on complicated per-row pay systems, were promised they would make incredible amounts of money, and end up deeply disappointed. Per-row crews usually have a small number of detasselers who make a lot, but it’s kind of like a pyramid and most of the workers end up at the bottom of the pyramid.
Can I work next to my friends?
If you are on the same bus, you will sometimes be able to be with your friends. If your friends are on a different bus, the chances that you will be together are very slim. Everyone will be set up in squads of about four detasselers and one squad leader. The bus assistant is in charge of setting up the squads, and you can request, if possible, to be put in a squad with a friend. We do want to avoid “cliques,” and it is helpful to get to know others on your bus, so you won’t be with your friends all the time. However, you can sit with them on the bus, take lunch breaks together, etc.
On another note, sometimes friends can be a distraction to you being the best worker you can be. We generally don’t mind chatting with other crew members as you go down the rows, especially after you’ve been fully trained and are comfortable with what you’re doing. But if squad leaders or the bus assistant feel that you do not work as well with some members of the crew, you will not be put in the same squad.
Can I get a job reference from you for future jobs or scholarships?
Yes. Many, many teens have told me that their detasseling experience helped them to gain other jobs, especially if you have detasseled for more than one year. It is always polite to ask an employer if you can put their name down for a job reference. Please note: Allow at least two weeks’ notice in order for me to provide a top-quality reference letter.
Also, if you’re sixteen or older and think you have to choose between detasseling and a year-round job, you might see if your employer is willing to let you off for a couple of weeks in July. I have many detasselers who are doing this, and in fact, we’re seeing a tremendous increase in these types of arrangements. Employers want to keep good workers and are often willing to let you off because they know detasseling pays so well.
What does it take to be a squad leader?
A squad leader is someone who has at least one year of experience in the field, and is willing to help train other detasselers. The very best squad leaders are those who know how to encourage the people in their squad, as well as making sure that rows are done cleanly.
How can I become a bus assistant?
A bus assistant must be at least 18 years of age. This individual is generally someone who has worked for NATS several years and has proven themselves to be of the highest character. He or she must have good communication skills. Good bus assistants come from good squad leaders–the squad leaders who know how to encourage and motivate, are selfless, patient and have an eye for details.
Do you give credit for years worked for another company?
Yes. We do consider one detasseling year to equal at least ten days in the field. Detasselers who come to us from other companies need to be able to prove their work experience if asked by providing a copy of their W-2 or other verification.