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Watson Farms: teaching the value of hard work to generations of area kids

By Tony Hooker
In a lot of ways, 3000 is a pretty interesting number.  If a batter reaches 3000 hits, they’re almost assuredly going to the hall of fame.  It’s a few hundred more people than live in Villa Grove.  A good solid number, by all accounts.

It’s also the approximate number of teenagers who made their way to the Watson Farms from 1975 until 2005 to enjoy a local rite of passage.  Detasseling.  Detasseling, along with its cousin, walking beans, was the way most kids from Villa Grove and the surrounding area made their first folding money.  I recently caught up with Jerry Watson, the patriarch of the detasseling scene, just north of Villa Grove, to talk about how the operation came to be.

Let’s start at the beginning.  You graduated from Villa Grove High School, right?

Yes, yes, I did.

Did you always want to be a farmer?

Obviously as a child, I always had other ambitions, but once I got into high school and went through college, I knew farming was the route I wanted to go.

What would you have done if you weren’t farming?

I don’t know.  I’ve always liked the golf industry, so if I had done something in golf, that would have been a lot of fun, too.  

How many years was your family associated with the seed corn industry?

My dad started growing seed corn in 1969, and I started detasseling in 1975.  My senior year in college, Pioneer had come to my dad asking if he had any suggestions for workers, because they were having a terrible time locating and keeping workers for detasseling.  My dad suggested, without really talking to me, that a local person who the kids would know, would have an easier time keeping the local kids around.  

Your father was the legendary Reider Watson, right?

Yes! <laughs>

1975 was your first year, and what was your last year?

I did it for right at 30 years.  I’m thinking Jodi had graduated from college, so right around 2006.  

Most of your summer help over those thirty years were Villa Grove High School students, correct?

I obviously had kids from the surrounding towns, but Villa Grove was where the workers came from.  I never really had a problem getting workers during that time.  For thirty years, I always seemed to be able to fill out my crews.  We figure that over that time period, we signed up over 3000 kids. 

Over that thirty years, did the technology change?

No question.  I was always amazed at how these seed companies, and obviously the one I was dealing with was Pioneer, and Pioneer would put hundreds of millions of dollars into plant breeding and research and technology by advancing the hybrids, and then in turn they literally put it in the hands of these teenagers to go out there and pull the tassels.  I’m not sure everyone quite understands the magnitude and importance of what was being done with detasseling.   I know the individual workers looked at it as a job and an hourly wage, but the end result was that if these seed fields weren’t cared for in the proper manner, the purity of the seed would get compromised and all of this research would be for naught.  There’s a lot going on out there, and if purity isn’t maintained, the seed just kind of became worthless. Competitively, your seed won’t be sold and the other company’s will be.  Whatever technologies and breeding they put into the plants, the kids were responsible for getting the finished product into the bags.

For folks who don’t understand it, could you kind of explain it?

In layman’s terms, the seed companies want to advance the quality and performance of their seed corn.  They may have one variety that produces an exceptionally good yield and one variety is good  standing corn, and they try to combine the two traits into one hybrid.  Every corn plant has both reproductive organs.  The tassels shed the pollen and the silks take the pollen and develop the kernels.  With seed corn, one of the plants, we call it the female plant, has to have the tassel pulled so that it doesn’t pollinate the plant.  We just want the pollen from the plants we’re trying to transfer the trait from into the female plant and go from there. All those tassels have to come out. You have to pull 99.5 percent of all the tassels from a field to make sure the purity is kept at the level the seed companies want.  So, if you’re planting 30000 plants in a field, you can do the math to determine how many plants must be detasseled!  

Did the kids change over that 30 years?

I have to say that I’ve been so fortunate with the kids that I was able to work with, the willingness of the kids to come to work.  I don’t know that the kids have changed.  The one thing I felt that we always tried to do was create an environment where the kids wanted to come to work and were at least willing to come back on the second day.  It’s not a really a fun job at all, it’s pretty monotonous, but to develop a work ethic for the kids that commit to it and show up each day, going out and trying to do the best they could each day.  I’m very respectful of them and their efforts.  

Why aren’t there more detasselers in the area anymore?

I think that’s one area where technology has changed the industry. As with so many things in our lives, tasks have changed from less workers and more automated jobs.  The seed companies have produced sterile hybrids where they can keep the tassel from spreading pollen so they don’t need the kids anymore because the plants have been bred to be sterile.  There are also a lot more mechanical operations where they keep running it over with machines and they just don’t need the kids any more.

That’s too bad, because I think it was kind of a rite of passage for teenagers in Villa Grove. 

It was great.  Kids used to call me throughout the year, looking forward to it.  I had some kids who worked for me for 8 or ten years and just kind of became family.  I think that the communities are missing out on these kinds of job opportunities, for the kids.  It was a three or four week window where we were active in detasseling, but I also see where so many of these families are on traveling ball teams and I think it would be very hard for me to get the number of kids that I need to work at this time.

Did any of your detasseling graduates go on to work in the industry?

I don’t know of any in the industry, but I do know that my dentist, my doctor, my HVAC installer, my electrician, a building contractor, an accountant and Jackie’s foot surgeon all detasseled for me! <laughs>There’s quite a list of people who’ve worked for us who went on and have terrific careers in other fields.  

<laughing> Was that because of the work ethic you instilled or because they didn’t want to detassel anymore?

I think they realized that this isn’t the profession that they wanted to pursue.  <laughs> 

Is there anything that you would like to add, Jerry?

There are so many things that went on with detasseling for all those years.  Obviously, my family, with Jackie’s help, kept me so organized.  The amount of forms that the kids had to fill out and paperwork that had to be turned in to the seed companies, the payroll that had to be turned in. Jackie was so good at that.  I had a lot of people helping me run the operation.  My brother did a lot of the wheel pulling.  There are just so many people who helped me over the years.  I’m just so thankful that over the years, I would have 150 kids spread out over a thousand acres, and there had to be a lot of trust between my crew bosses, myself and the kids.  Over that thirty years, we never had any serious injuries or incidents that would have given us a black eye.  I’m just so appreciative of the kids that went through and helped this operation over that time period.

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