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.”
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.
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.
Over the twenty years that I’ve been running NATS Detasseling, I’ve observed that our teens are in an uphill battle with regard to professional and clean speech. From our national leaders to the hallways in our schools, civil speech has taken a back seat.
A great place to start regaining a sense of civility is to take an honest look at how we treat God’s name. Not only do we need to respect each other in word and in deed, but we also need to respect God’s name. In 2017, I began handing wristbands out to our crew with the simple phrase “Revere the Name.” By the end of the summer, we’d given away over 2,000 wristbands.
Starting conversations about revering God’s name in an OMG world is essentially what the wristbands are about. Somehow along the way, we’ve reduced the God of the universe’s name to a common exclamatory phrase, used carelessly to express our surprise, frustration or even joy over the events of daily life. I believe if we can start with revering God’s name, respectful speech towards others will follow. Workers do not have to wear the wristbands, or even take them; they are free. If you’d like some extras, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
At NATS, we want to build and develop great leaders. By making detasseling become part of your summer ritual, you’ll gain experience in training and mentoring others, while building a resume that future employers and colleges will take note of.
To make detasseling a part of your college-prep journey, two good goals are to become a squad leader in our company and to do well on the ACT.
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. The NATS system has been designed to promote leadership development; it’s not just about pulling tassels off of a row of corn. It’s about building community and helping everyone to be the best that they can be. A good squad leader will not hang back and just watch his or her squad pull their rows. They’ll get right in there and do whatever it takes, expecting high quality from their squad and exhibiting a humble spirit and compassionate heart.
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. At NATS, our supervisors (and even drivers!) generally come from within the company. Retaining high-quality workers year after years, and growing our own supervisors from within the company, allows us to hire quality individuals to mentor younger workers. These individuals have proven themselves over many seasons of detasseling and have earned our deepest trust and respect. This is also why you will not see us posting applications for supervisors on our website; we handpick them from within our organization; or, in exceptional cases, from recommendations from known and trusted current supervisors.
The Lincoln-based 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. Usually about half of our crew on these buses are in college, and half in high school.
My goal is for those on this bus who have good or perfect attendance to come home with at least $2400, but we often have members who will earn over $3,000 for the season. We do ask that you be prepared to help clean up fields on Sundays, with the knowledge that your bus will be rotated off either on Tuesday or Wednesday so that you can have a day of rest. The clean-up crews often work between 20 and 30 days per season, whereas the regular buses work usually between 10 and 15 days per season.
OnToCollege With John Baylor has partnered exclusively with NATS Detasseling so that anyone has worked for NATS qualifies for their best discount–25% off of either online or in-person test prep classes with John Baylor. If you’ve ever detasseled for NATS, then you qualify for the discount–it does not have to be within the same year. Please email Dawn for the current year’s discount code.
John’s expertise has helped thousands of students raise their ACT scores by an average of over two points. Oftentimes that point deferential can mean the difference in getting accepted into the college you’re trying to get into, or in snagging some big scholarships. I would highly suggest that all junior high and high school students, along with their parents, watch this video from the OnToCollege website.
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.
If you live in Lancaster County and are a senior and are planning to attend a state-run Nebraska college, consider applying for one of the 13 LIBA scholarships. NATS is a member of LIBA primarily for the reason that all of our employees qualify for the LIBA scholarships. Over the past several years, NATS workers have won quite a few of these scholarships!
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.
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.
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, without shoes on.
In order for us to legally hire you, we’ll need an I-9 and a W-4, plus a parental permission form and various forms from seed corn companies. To facilitate filling out these forms, we hold orientation meetings that last approximately one hour and 15 minutes. These meetings are by invitation only. If you are a new detasseler and are hired by NATS, you will be sent an email around April 1st with options to attend one of our orientation meetings. At that time, you’ll be given a folder with all of the paperwork included inside. During the orientation meeting, we’ll walk you through how to properly fill out the forms, as well as giving you great information about how to succeed at detasseling and what to expect.
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 hiring eligible employees. Both the W-4 and I-9s are filled out at our orientation meetings.
We operate by word-of-mouth, and our buses do fill up fast. On March 1 we activate the online application at 6 a.m.. 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. APPLICATIONS ARE COMPETITIVE. Just because you got yours in at 6:05 a.m. does not guarantee that you are automatically hired. 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).
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 emails. It’s always the case that when someone receives their acceptance email 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 emails 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 phone 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. Our goal is for crew members on the regular buses to have the opportunity to work between 60-80 hours per season; Force buses generally work around 110-120 hours per season.
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!
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. 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 beside them, we see immediately if a row is not being done properly and we can take care of it 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! 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.
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.
Generally, the season starts somewhere around July 10. It can start a few days earlier or later than this. We get about a 48-hour advance notice from seed corn companies as to when we will start. We’ll then post that information up on our Updates page, as well as try to call everyone with an initial phone call to let them know that we’ll be rolling soon! We normally do not start all buses on the same day, but we’ll stagger start the buses so that everyone gets properly trained.
A typical detasseling season lasts about three weeks, and often it will dip into the first few days of August. If there are late acres, we do sometimes see the season stretching into a fourth week.
We work six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Our two Force buses do go out on Sundays to do clean-up work, and they are rotated off on either Tuesday or Wednesday so that they have one day off per week as well. In addition, we do offer Sunday Extra Hours buses for our regular buses. This is not a requirement, but it is an opportunity for workers to bank an extra day towards an attendance bonus, make up a day that was missed during the week, or just gain extra hours in general.
You can find information about each of our pick-up/drop-off locations on our Pick-Up Sites page. In addition, as the season approaches we’ll post bios of our supervisors for each bus site.
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. I will not ask the workers to do anything that I or my supervisors are not willing to do right along with them. 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 that we carry out into the fields.
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.
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. Energy drinks, such as Monster and Red Bull, are not allowed, due to the health dangers that they pose for workers.
Besides your water, snacks and lunch, you’ll want to bring some type of rain gear, which could actually be a lawn/leaf garbage bag with holes cut out of it for your head and arms. You’ll also need some sunscreen and bug repellent, and you’ll want to have your arms and legs covered to avoid getting scratched by the corn leaves. On the first day of detasseling, we’ll provide you with hats, gloves and glasses, which you will need to bring back to work with you every day thereafter. More information about what to wear and bring will be given at our orientation meetings.
The short answer is, no. The corn is tall and wet in the mornings, and your electronic devices will be ruined. Also, we want to build community on our buses, and we will encourage you to get to know the people in your squads each day. Your squad leader is in charge of training you to be the best detasseler you can be, and he or she will need to be able to communicate with you, which doesn’t work very well when you’re wearing headphones. You’re welcome to bring Ipods or cell phones onto the bus, provided that you understand you do so at your own risk, and provided that you are not using these devices to promulgate anything profane, racist or abusive to other persons. We do, however, allow older workers on our clean-up crews to use electronic devices in the field at their own risk, as these workers are not placed in squads but are working on their own.
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 underneath the bus. We recommend you use the port-a-potty when we first arrive at the field or during breaks in order to avoid a long walk from the backside of the field.
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. We’ll make sure and send a group text message to parents if workers need to wait out the storm, so that you’ll know that the bus will probably be delayed that day. If we sit on the bus to wait out a storm, the rate of pay is current minimum wage.
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.
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 or lunch break. Transportation in-between fields is paid.
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. Closed-toe shoes are required.
Also, many of our detasselers duct tape their feet. Basically, by putting strips of duct tape on the bottom and sides of the foot, and also on the heel, 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.
You can find information about each of our pick-up/drop-off locations on our Pick-Up Sites page. In addition, as the season approaches we’ll post bios of our supervisors for each bus site.
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.
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. Note: 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.