Dean of the Cornfields

by Jim Amidon

July 20, 2004

Corn at sunrise

 

 

    
Depending on the height of the corn, the four-way stop at the intersection of US 36 and Illinois State Road 49 is optional for truckers bisecting the Midwest in their loaded down rigs. It’s 6:12 a.m. and I’m watching the sun peek over the tops of the corn tassels, while placing bets with myself if the next truck will slow down, stop, or just pump the breaks once.

There are cornfields in all four directions where I am. The ground is board flat with only occasional trees and silos breaking up the horizon.

I’m waiting for Mauri Ditzler to pick me up. He didn’t give me precise directions or information when I had talked to him the night before. He just said, "Meet me at 36 and 49 at 6:30 in the morning." He could have said, "Meet me in Newman," but that wouldn’t have been much help since I never knew there was such a place.

But that’s where I was. The flaking paint on the sign for Newman’s steak house, which proudly announces it serves steaks on Friday and Saturday nights, told me where I was and what else marked the corner of the intersection of 36 and 49 in east central Illinois.

     Dean of the College Mauri Ditzler

Dean of the College Mauri Ditzler

 

Ditzler is dean of the college at Wabash College, a private college for men named among the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges. He’s the chief academic officer of the school and has been deeply involved in strategic planning, grant writing, faculty governance and hiring, tenure decisions, and helping promote Wabash’s national Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts to the academic alphabet soup organizations.

But today, when he drives up in a 20-year old pick-up truck with paint flaking as badly as the steak house sign, he’s as far from the academic world as he can be, both physically and psychologically.

See, Ditzler doesn’t take vacation during the school year. He’s largely on call for the college 24/7 when classes are in session. Once July comes, he takes his month of vacation in one lump and returns to a business he helped start as a teenager and would later become D and W—specialists in corn detasseling and rogue clearing. Back then, the Rosedale, Indiana native used the money he earned in the fields to pay for college at Wabash, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Next, he needed money to pay for his expensive Ph.D. in chemistry, which he earned at Duke University. By then, spending hot July days in the cornfields had become a summer ritual.


It’s 6:20 a.m. when I climb into Ditzler’s blue truck. Slamming the door makes airborne a million tiny particles of dust and dirt that have collected during his first three weeks in the cornfields.

Mauri’s wearing dirty blue jeans, filthy black court shoes, a gray polo-like shirt without emblem, and a seed corn hat. He quickly hands me a hat just like his. It’s tan with mesh in the back to allow your head to breathe during the hot afternoons in the sun. Emblazoned across the front is the name "Syngenta," which is the name of one of the giant seed producers that have gobbled up most of the local firms. "Wear this and you can get anything you want around here," Ditzler says as I slip it over my head.

On the short ride to the field where his main crew will work today, Mauri explains that this will be a slow day, that because of our unseasonably cold and wet summer, the corn hasn’t been growing fast enough. It’s then that I suddenly realize I’m in a completely different place where timing is everything.

We pull up next to two aluminum silos flanked on all four sides by cornfields. Around the perimeter are large machines that look better suited to a Schwarzenegger "Terminator" movie than the heartland. I ask Mauri what they are, and he tells me that the orange tractor-like creatures are mechanical tassel pullers and that they cut anywhere from 20 to 90 percent of the tassels from female corn plants with one or two passes. Next to them are yellow machines, the ones on which Mauri’s workers will ride. They look like the mechanical pullers, except there’s a 24-foot bar across the front from which hang four baskets, evenly spaced.

I now begin to get the idea of what’s going to happen.

Dean Ditzler on the personnel carrier.

Dean Ditzler atop the personnel carrier. 


 

    
Mauri climbs up on the yellow machines and begins to start them. "You really have to choke these things," he says, never looking up. One by one they are started and he moves them into position in the field across the road. He summons me to join him on the most stubborn to start of the four, where I sit on a dew-soaked edge about eight or ten feet off the ground. "We’ll put two kids in each basket and drive up and down the blocks. Since the fields we’re working today have already been pulled mechanically, the kids are just looking for what’s been missed," he explains.

Each kid gets his or her own row. The middle of the machine that has no basket is lined up with the male pollinating plants and the kids are to yank the tassels from the females. There is one male row for every four rows of female plants. When the females begin to produce ears, the silks will gather only the pollen from the remaining males. The result will be a new hybrid with the best characteristics of the different male and female plants. And in this multi-billion dollar seed world, getting all the tassels off at exactly the right time means the difference between a clean yield and one that has been contaminated by the wrong pollen.


It’s 6:40, just minutes after we’ve begun our day, and Mauri’s black shoes already are saturated from the morning dew. "Corn is an incredibly wet plant in the morning," he says with a shrug. He seems remarkably relaxed for a man who runs at such a fast pace through the school year. We have the machines in place and we’re simply waiting on the school buses to arrive carrying the work force. He says he’s been doing this for 35 years and never remembers it being so slow.

     Young woman detasseling corn.

Young woman detasseling corn.

 

 

"We use fewer kids with more supervision," he explains of his new system of operations. "Years ago we’d have 1,000 kids working for us and we’d assign 60-80 kids to a single supervisor, then set them off down the rows. Now we use crews of about 20 kids with two or three adults and we’ve found we can get as much done as we used to."

And it’s a lot less hectic. Imagine taking a mile-long walk with 60 kids ages 12 to 18 you can’t see through the corn and trying to end up at the same place at the same time. That’s the picture Mauri’s drawn of the old days when they detasseled corn from Rockville to Peoria and all points in between.

Now it’s mostly Syngenta and Agrigold who hire D and W, and the areas they work are largely confined to a 40-mile radius around Paris, Illinois and another similarly sized quadrant near Vincennes.


It’s 7:05 a.m. and the bus from Paris has arrived. Mauri stands before the kids and barks instructions, cautioning them to be careful and to do a good job. They look amazingly young to me, and I’m surprised by the relatively even mix of girls and boys. Then Jim Martin (Mauri’s brother in law), Mark (Mauri’s son), and Andy (Mauri’s nephew) announce that they’ll be driving the personnel carriers. They start picking the kids to ride their machines, eight to a side, just like choosing sides for a backyard football game. They move quickly, scattering to the three personnel carriers while simultaneously adding layers of clothes.

"In the past, we avoided riding corn," Mauri says of the gangly machines that will carry eight kids at a time. "This year we contracted as much as we could get. I can stand here and see every single kid who is working for us just by counting the machines. In my old age, I like that a whole lot better than trying to keep an eye on 80 kids walking in a cornfield."

The roar of the machines’ engines starting gives Mauri a chance, a brief one, to give me a history lesson on D and W.  The "D" stands for Ditzler and the "W" for Walters, meaning Joe Walters, his longtime partner. Then there’s the "and," which I come to realize stands for Andrew, Glenn Andrew, his original partner when they started detasseling as kids. Actually, Glenn is the oldest of the trio. He’s coached basketball and taught at North Central High School in Farmersburg most of his life. Joe Walters and Glenn married women who are twin sisters. And about everybody’s family, distant relatives, and children, are involved in some way or another.

Jim Martin has been with D and W for 17 years. He’s the brother of Mauri’s wife, Judy. Jim’s son, Andrew, is one of the supervisors. It really is all in the family.

Mauri is a bit melancholy as he explains that his son, Mark, will wrap up his 12-year detasseling career at the end of this season. That means that next year will be the first in 35 years that Mauri won’t have a relative in the business with him. Mark has been accepted into a graduate biochemistry program at the University of Michigan and figures he can make more money next summer writing grants that will fund his study and research than he can make in the fields. Mauri shrugs his shoulders as he recalls making similar decisions throughout his life; as a Ph.D. chemist, Ditzler knows well the "publish or perish" stigma. He’s chosen to live his summer in the cornfields and as a result seems reborn at the end of every detasseling season. "It’s invigorating, I lose weight; I go home and feel healthy and ready for the start of the school year," he says.

Ditzler, Andrew, and Walters run the show with lots of help from devoted spouses. They have six or seven teachers and coaches who prefer the short, grueling detasseling season to painting houses in the summer months. Most of the supervisors have been with them for 15-20 years, so there’s a familiar routine to all that goes on in the fields. As the supervisors age and fade off, they are typically not replaced.

Two young men detasseling corn.

Two young men detasseling corn.

 

    
"We’re scaling down these days," Ditzler explains as we walk back to the bus drop area where the Rockville kids, driven by partner Joe Walters, have arrived. "We’re all getting older now and there’s so much liability. When you’re 27 years-old you can handle having 15 buses full of kids scattered all over the region and the hectic pace that creates. But we’re all getting a little bit older and a little bit more gray, and we just prefer a less hectic season."

Walters’ Rockville kids step out of the bus with a military style precision. They look older and they’re mostly boys and mostly in high school. Walters shouts a couple of commands and the boys all run to their baskets on the large personnel carrier.

"Joe’s pretty intense," says Mauri. "Over the years you come to realize that the buses tend to take on the personality of the driver or supervisor. That’s the case with Joe. He wants to get out there, work hard, work fast, and get done. And that’s what his kids want to do."

Mauri isn’t kidding, either. The Paris kids on their machines have a good 10-minute head start. But within a few minutes, Joe has pulled even. "He runs his machine a little faster," Mauri says. I’m not sure if he’s talking about the personnel carrier or Joe himself.

It’s 7:30 a.m. and 32 kids and a half-dozen supervisors are tackling a 112-block field a bit more than a half-mile long. That gives Ditzler a chance to take a breath. He calls Glenn, who is managing the other quadrant way south of where we are, on his cell phone, standing in the bed of his truck to "get above the corn" for better reception. He finds out the Farmersburg bus has left and should arrive where we are around 8 a.m.

This is real work they’re doing and while not everybody is having a blast doing it, I am certain that the supervisors are doing exactly what they want to do on a cool July morning. But I’m not sure why. So with a break in the action, I try to pin Ditzler down for a little Q&A. He nervously agrees and answers my questions thoughtfully, but always with one eye on the field and one eye looking up the road for the Farmersburg bus.

What’s the best part of this job, I ask.

"The salaried supervisors will stick around at the end of the day after we’ve sent the kids home," he explains, his eyes drifting to the dark, almost black soil. "Together we will work for another two or three hours. It’s really the fun part of the job. We’re faster than the kids are and we all enjoy it; we all remember it’s how we got started in this 35 years ago. I don’t know when it will end, but I will quit this job on the day when I can no longer walk the fields.

"At night, after the kids have left, Joe, Glenn, and I will work those rows, talk, and make our plans. A lot of times we’ll save a few odd rows just for us. In fact, the other night Glenn and I walked a mile-long row at the end of the day in corn way over our heads so we couldn’t see each other. And at the end of that hour-long walk, we finished within 15 seconds of each other."

There is a refreshing tone in his voice when I notice his eyes are closed, looking neither at the kids on the machines or for the anticipated bus.

"I first started doing this as a way to pay for college," he continues. "Then I did it to pay for graduate school. When I started teaching and Judy and I had kids, I did it so that she could stay home with the kids while I taught; so this was the second job. When I no longer had to do it, I discovered that this defined my life. In a four-week period you can see the whole life cycle of corn, you see the kids mature and gain confidence, and those cool summer mornings," he says as he rubs his hand over a soaking wet corn leaf.

Certainly these long, hard days have provided some lessons that can be applied to other aspects of his life. Already, I had learned more in an hour than I ever knew about agricultural genetics before. So I ask Ditzler what the important lessons are that he gleans from his time in the fields.

"Well, I guess I’ve learned patience and I’ve learned balance," says the guy who is known at Wabash College for working 16-hour days. "I’ve learned when to walk away and when to meddle, when to micromanage and when to let people solve their own problems. I’ve learned a lot about kids, and if you treat the kids well and give them responsibility, by and large they will respond positively."

Bonnie, the Farmersburg bus driver, is not here yet and Mauri is getting worried. It’s 8:00 a.m. and Mauri can’t stop looking at his watch. But he continues to talk passionately about detasseling. "Twenty-five or 30 years ago, we thought the mechanical pullers would put us out of business. Now we couldn’t do it without them. The pullers probably get 60 percent [of the tassels] with one pass, then we do two more passes by hand, staggered to let the runts grow out."


For the first time of the day, Mauri suddenly looks like his academic self. The absent-minded scientist jumps up and starts jogging toward Jim’s truck. "Come on, let’s go," he shouts to me. He had forgotten that we were supposed to meet Bonnie up at the corner, not here at the field.

Bonnie had arrived early and had been sitting there waiting for us for 15 minutes. Apologies accepted, we lead the bus and another pick-up truck with two college-aged supervisors in it about 15 miles northwest of Newman to Villa Grove, where we turn north to find a 23-acre plot that’s been mechanically detasseled and walked once.

The kids barrel out of the back of the bus and start to dress in a combination suit that makes them look half like fire fighters and half like bank-robbers. The corn is wet, so they wear heavy rain suits. They cover their arms with toeless tube socks and their faces with bandanas. "Some of the kids get bad rashes from the corn stalks and leaves," Mauri tells me. Before I can get up to snap a picture, the kids disappear into the endless rows of corn at least seven feet tall.

Bonnie joins us in our truck and we’re quickly off, searching Snake Road, a winding one-laner, for an 11-acre field the Farmersburg kids will pull when they’re done with their current job. I notice a stack of three-ring binders in the cab of the truck. They are not Mauri’s lab notebooks or hopeful professors’ tenure dossiers; they contain detailed maps to specifically numbered plots. Plot maps detail the precise number of male and female rows contained in each. Mauri tells me there are about 30,000 tassels per acre.

I’m suddenly realizing that this seed corn business is made up of a vast network of people, from the seed giants to the landowners, from whom the companies lease land. They contract with farmers to plant it, then with others to fertilize it, and still others to detassel it. All the way through the life cycle, there are watchful field production supervisors monitoring the process and communicating with the production people back in Paris.

 We drift back through Villa Grove and Mauri begins to tell me about the importance of the detasseling work as it plays out in small towns all across the Midwest.

"We’re talking about small town kids who know each other so well having gone through kindergarten together and all the way up," he says, pausing to point out fields along the side of the road that are now worked by migrant workers. "But somehow, their character is defined by their very first summer detassling. Ten to 20 years later, everyone in that town will remember who quit and went home the first day in the fields. And they’ll remember those who worked hard and were good at it, too.

"A guy might grow up to be a banker in that town, but if he left the field on that first day of detasseling when he was in junior high, he’s known as a quitter."

We show Bonnie the field she’ll do next, tear out some maps from the three-ring binder, and drop her off back at the field north of Villa Grove to meet up with her bandits in the fields. She’ll wait until they make their turns to start another half-mile row, then she’ll join them.

We head back toward our original plot near Newman, population 1,100. Mauri tells me that years ago when he taught at the College of the Holy Cross, he used to live the entire month of July in the Newman motel, a one-story cinderblock building whose windows are now boarded up with plywood. He’d bring his well-to-do East Coast chemistry students to Newman to work for the summer. Of course, the Holy Cross students really struggled the first few days, but then adjusted to the heat, hard work, slow pace of small town life, and eventually even grew to enjoy it.

Newman is a town with a couple dozen shops and stores and no stoplights. He’d come to the same motel in the same small town and live there for a month. He would come to know the habits of the locals and they knew his, but nobody knew his name or his other job. If he spent the month of July on vacation in some exotic locale, he would always be the academic dean of a prestigious liberal arts college. Out here, he’s not—he’s somebody else whom nobody knows, wearing dirty blue jeans and the exact same seed company hat as all the locals. "Over the years the guys who work closest with me have heard that I teach, but they don’t really know what I do," he says. And it’s clear he likes the anonymity this summer ritual brings.

As Ditzler has moved up the academic hierarchy, it’s becoming more and more difficult to squeeze all of his vacations into one, neat month-long package, especially given both the precise timing involved and the imprecise swings in weather that determine everything. So I ask him how much longer he’ll do it, knowing he just celebrated his 51st birthday.

"If my knees hold up and Andy (Wabash President Andrew Ford) continues to humor it, I’ll do it for another ten years," he says with a smile. "But over the last two years, I’ve done everything as though it was the last time, just in case."


It’s mid-morning and we’re back near Newman in the field being pulled by kids from Paris and Rockville. Joe has given over his carrier to a young supervisor and is waiting for us. He complains briefly that the mechanical pullers, contracted by the seed company, hadn’t shown up on time and it was slowing everything down. Already I knew much about Joe’s personality—lifelong logger and truck driver; and independent contractor forced for three weeks a year to fully yield personal control and rely on, yikes, 13-year-olds. He mumbles something about the time Mauri forgot to duck when walking under a personnel carrier, knocking himself out cold and falling face first in a mud puddle. Mauri can’t confirm it—because he was out like a light—but says enough people remember it that it must be true.

Jim’s crew is making the turn so I wave to see if I can ride along for a block run. He motions me to join him, and up I climb. The dew that saturated my backside at dawn has been exchanged for intense sunlight, humidity, and rising heat. It’s about 10:30 and already it’s very hot.

Jim’s a successful basketball coach from Indianapolis, who tells me he married Judy’s sister, which is how he knows Mauri over these years. His son, Andy, is driving another rig; his youngest son is in the basket farthest right in the machine Jim is driving. On the opposite end is a young boy who is sharing a basket with a pretty junior high aged girl. The boy is clearly more interested in looking cool for the girl than in picking tassels. Jim shouts a few playful motivational comments, then decides to have the kid stand in front with the girl behind him. We’re soon on our way.

Jim tells me the job has taught him patience, too, and how to motivate young people, solve problems, and teach others how to solve their own problems. It was as though he was just repeating what Mauri had said hours before. I ask Jim about Mauri, too. A long pause, then a smile, then a diplomatic response: "Mauri’s always tinkering, always thinking of ways to do things better or different. He’s always on." I reflect for a minute and realize that the scientist in Mauri never sleeps, even if he occasionally trades the lab goggles for a seed company hat.

We finish the lap in about 40 minutes, pausing only to pull the occasional rogue growing tall above the other males. When we’re back I jump off and go straight to Mauri. I point out the young boy that Jim has just reprimanded and Mauri nods. "Tough kid. Last week one of our other kids didn’t show up, and when we asked our crew where he was, that kid right there told us that he had been arrested for stealing a car. Of course the cops were looking for three or four of our kids, including that boy there. I guess the cops wanted to teach the boys what it is to be an accessory to grand theft auto."

We’re still a couple of hours from lunch and I’m starved. But there’s no shade anywhere and no place to sit where the heat, the bugs, and the dirt don’t consume you. So I opt for an easy solution and suggest to Mauri that maybe we ought to check on the kids near Villa Grove. He agrees, which gives me a chance to sit in the truck for 10 minutes and stick my head out the window to cool off.


I have observed three aspects of Mauri’s summer job that had never before entered my mind. First, that the network of people involved—from farmers to the college kids who put out all of those seed company signs along the highway all the way up to the production supervisors—is huge. I notice immediately that the work is hard, the hours are long, the days unpredictable, but the results are real and tangible.

Second, that timing is critical and at the same time unpredictable. Between the time the tassels form on the males and begin to shed pollen there is an 18-hour window to get the tassels off the females to avoid contamination. Once the silks begin to show on the budding ears of the females, they will begin to collect falling or blown pollen immediately. Timing is everything.

Finally, I’ve noticed that the kids are quiet, but not sullen. Their moods improve as the morning fades and their clothes dry. They even smile and laugh as they return from a water break at 10:30 a.m. It’s pretty late in the season now, the third week, and most of the work is pretty routine. By now they’ve walked fields and ridden fields; walked in scorching 90-degree heat and driving rain; and they’ve kept coming back every day. I’m not sure they enjoy the work, but how many teenagers enjoy working the deep fryer at McDonald’s?

"Long ago we learned not to pay the kids as we went along," Mauri says with a smile. "We cut only one check and that’s at the end of the season. If we paid them as we went along, they’d never come back after that first check."


We arrive at Bonnie’s field of 23 acres just as the first of the masked bandits are emerging from the corn. They strip themselves of their protective clothes and wait for the others to come out. Because of the lateness of the day—noonish—and the long drive back to Farmersburg, Mauri tells Bonnie to follow him to a third field, a large one, but one they can finish in the time remaining. The other field off Snake Road was too small and they would have finished early, and Mauri imagines having the supervisors knock that one out the next day.

Before we leave, Darrin, the field production manager, shows up and tries to predict for Mauri when his crews will be needed next. "Maybe Monday," he says with a shrug, "but more likely Tuesday and Wednesday. Oh, and the big, big brass will be here Tuesday, so make sure the kids have on their hats and sunglasses."

The hats and sunglasses would be the giveaways the local production folks supply the contractors that bear the Syngenta logo.


It’s 12:30 and the sun is really hot as we arrive once again at the field near Newman. The kids are on break for lunch, eating from their Playmate coolers, huddled in a narrow shadow of shade created by the bus, leaning slightly ditchward on the side of the gravel road on which it’s parked. Two kids are actually under the bus.

City Boy Writer: "That can’t be cool."

Mauri: "No, but it is shade."

I look up to notice that the nearest tree is at least a mile away.

Mauri, Joe, and Jim discuss whether or not the Rockville and Paris kids will be able to finish this 112-block, half-mile long field. Mauri suggests keeping the kids an hour longer, then giving them Saturday and Sunday off. Days off in such a short, time-sensitive season are rare. Bonnie told me earlier that tomorrow will be her fourth day off this season, a nod to the unseasonably cool and wet July.

Layers of clothing, so necessary in the cool, wet, early morning hours have been shed. Flannel shirts are tied to all parts of the personnel carriers and the girls have their sweatshirts tied around their waists to hide embarrassing sweat stains from their rear ends. Guys with roofers’ tans have taken off their shirts; the girls have their shortsleeved shirts rolled up over their shoulders.


At 12:47 lunch is over for all. A small cloud covers the scorching sun, briefly, and all the crews are back at work. The haze and humidity are visible. Mauri moves the school buses up to the far end of the field in anticipation of the end of the day and to move the water coolers closer. The mechanical pullers have completed their rounds, so Joe is in a much cheerier mood, though cheery is not likely a word ever used to describe this robust, white-bearded hulk. Mauri told me he was a logger, but I could have guessed it from the guy’s build. Joe tells me the story of a day when they had a crew working a field near Montezuma, Indiana. A farmer calls him late in the day to say that the busload of kids had left the field, but the field hadn’t been finished and that it had to be finished that day. So Mauri, his brother John, Glenn, and Joe head to Montezuma, arriving about nightfall to finish what the kids hadn’t. "It was so dark you couldn’t see anything, and there we are walking the fields, looking up at the moonlight in order to see the tassels," Joe says.

 


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