FUNK, Neb. (AP) — Cornfield fashion is a mix of required gear and personal touches for Hagan Detasseling employees — mostly teenagers — who work from sunrise to early afternoon daily for three midsummer weeks.
They wear company-issued neon orange wide-brimmed hats with net face shields, safety glasses, gloves and corn husk yellow arm socks.
Individual styles are reflected in the colors and patterns of shirts, pants and a few neckerchiefs, and by raincoats or black trash bags worn when cornfields are damp from rain, dew or a recent pivot irrigation run. Plastic water jugs in a rainbow of colors are the utilitarian version of designer bags.
However, this year’s hottest accessories are face masks worn for COVID-19 safety.
Everyone must wear masks while on buses that transport Hagan workers from Kearney, Minden and Axtell pickup sites to cornfields and between fields. Masks also are required when small groups gather while waiting for the last tassel pullers to exit cornfield rows.
Crew members are handed paper masks as they board the rented school buses at 5:15 each workday morning, after having their temperatures checked by PPE-clothed bus drivers.
The mask rules are only one part of COVID-19 directives detasseling companies and other agriculture businesses must follow.
Hagan Detasseling owners Brian and Hallie Hagan of Kearney, Nebraska, said they follow directives from Bayer Crop Science, which contracts with them to detassel cornfields in the Holdrege to Minden area for the Kearney seed production plant, and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
In a cornfield south of Funk recently, Hallie said the first day of the 2020 detasseling season went well.
“It was a long day, which is not unusual for a training day with many new detasslers who focus on tassels, not speed,” she said, noting that 70 of the 180 crew members are new this year. “The speed comes later.”
The Hagans, bus drivers and other team leaders have more 2020 responsibilities because of COVID-19 safety issues.
“All of our bus drivers had a meeting with a Bayer person,” Brian said, to learn how to take workers’ temperatures each morning. The safety standard is less than 100.4 degrees.
They must wear personal protective equipment — lab coats, masks, face shields and gloves — and may have bus headlights as their primary light source. The PPE must be washed before it can be used the next morning.
“The biggest thing is how to load buses with 180 kids and keep them 6 feet apart,” Hallie said, adding the first bus ride was a time to educate workers about why it’s important to wear masks, regularly wash or sanitize hands and avoid gathering in large groups, even outdoors in the cornfields.
Throughout the three-week season, detasselers must ride the same buses in the same seats and with the same seat mates, including on workday cornfield-to-cornfield rides.
“We also have hired someone to sanitize everything all day when we’re at the fields,” Hallie said.
McKenzie Reilly, a kindergarten teacher at Kearney’s Northeast Elementary School, uses a garden sprayer to sanitize seats every time workers exit the five rented school buses throughout the day and at the end of the workday. He also constantly sanitizes portable toilets at the cornfields.
Reilly’s other job is dispensing drinks in paper cups or as water jug refills from large containers in the back of a Hagan Detasseling pickup. On this day, he handed out many single servings of sports drink to detasslers who had finished walking corn rows at the second Funk area field of the morning.
Brian Hagan said there also are gallon jugs of hand sanitizer available at the fields, plus sanitary wipes to disinfect thermometers and communications radios.
Detasslers cannot eat the lunches they bring from home while on the bus this year. Hallie said they can eat whenever they want as long as they maintain social distancing outside.
“There isn’t a lot of room in the field,” to keep a distance, she added, so when detasslers walk in side-by-side corn rows, one goes in first to maintain 6 feet of distance from the other.
Detasselers also bring their own water jugs with their names written on them. They place the jugs at the ends of the rows they’re working.
Hallie said plastic sandwich bags are attached to the jugs this year to give detasselers a place to keep masks clean while they walk corn rows and handy to put on when they’re done.
Hagan Detasseling changed some traditions months before the first tassel was pulled this year.
When April crew recruiting events at Kearney Public Library and Minden’s United Methodist Church weren’t allowed because of COVID-19, drive-thru alternatives were scheduled and there was greater reliance on distributing information on the company’s Facebook page.
The Hagans said they still had a full 180-member crew signed up within eight days. Hallie said the only COVID-19 effect was that some veteran detasselers didn’t apply because of conflicts with delayed baseball seasons.
On July 6, work gear and orientation information were distributed at a drive-thru event on the Buffalo County Fairgrounds. Hallie said a link to an orientation video uploaded to YouTube was provided to crew members on the Facebook page and in emails.
Justin Baumert and Tristan Southwell of Kearney, both 18, are in their sixth year working for Hagan Detasseling. Both said they returned to the fields mostly for the “good, quick money.”
Baumert, who will be a freshman pre-med major at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, said he’s saved all of his detasseling money and will use most of it to pay for his education.
Hallie said each of Hagan Detasseling’s 17 years in business has been a little different and there always are challenges with equipment, weather and other things that can go wrong.
“But this year might be the weirdest,” she said.