6 money lessons I learned working as a corn detasseler

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My first real summer job was detasseling corn when I was 14. The lessons I learned from my hard work in the cornfield that summer shaped my view of money and the economy for a lifetime.

What Is Detasseling Corn, Anyhow?

Here's how it works: Corn plants have a tassel that grows on the top of the plant, sort of like a flower, that produces pollen. Sometimes the goal is to cross one variety of corn with another, so you want only one variety to provide pollen. Some rows of corn are planted as "female" corn that will receive the pollen and produce the hybrid seeds. Other rows are planted as "male" corn that get to keep their tassels and provide pollen to make the desired crossbreed.

The job of detasseling involves walking down the rows of corn and pulling each and every tassel out of the corn in "female" rows. In some ways, this is an easy job because the objective is so simple: just pull the tassels. But detasseling corn has its challenges. The reality of working outside in the heat and humidity of a corn field, getting chased by mosquitos, and starting at the crack of dawn every day was a big change from my previous summer routine of staying up late watching music videos, playing Atari video games, and sleeping until mid-morning.

Here are some things I learned about money from my summer job detasseling corn.

1. Making Money Is Hard Work

The pay for detasseling corn was around $5 per hour, a bit more than minimum wage at the time. After my first day of work, I figured that I had made about $40. I was dead tired from getting up so early, and my hands were sore from grasping and pulling those darn tassels all day. When I closed my eyes that night, I could see the tassels coming toward me. That seemed like a whole lot of effort to make only $40!

Lesson: I learned that making money took a lot more effort than I thought it would.

2. Awareness of Expenses

Detasselers pack a lunch and take it with them. This makes sense, because there is nothing to eat in the middle of a corn field unless you bring it with you. With my newly found appreciation of the value of a dollar, I started keeping track of how much my lunches cost. I started buying bulk containers of lunch items, like applesauce and chips instead of the convenient, but more expensive single serving sizes.

As I started receiving a paycheck and keeping better track of my money, I saw how quickly expenses can burn up any money that you make if you are not careful. I could easily spend a full day's earnings in a few minutes at the mall buying clothes or going to the movies with friends.

Since my parents were covering my basic expenses for food, shelter, and clothing, I was able to save almost all of the money that I brought home. I ended up with over $1,000 in the bank from my summer job. This made me realize the benefits of having low expenses.

Lesson: I learned that the money piles up if you don't spend it.

3. The Value Chain

The teacher who hired me had a contract with the seed corn company for thousands of dollars to detassel the field. The seed corn company that contracted the detasseling was able to sell the seed corn they produced for hundreds of thousands of dollars — or maybe more.

The value of my unskilled, but hard work was $5 per hour. There were plenty of teenagers in the area who were willing to work hard over the summer for this wage. Why would they pay me more than $5 per hour if the next person was willing to work for $5 per hour?

The value of the contract to detassel a few acres of the field was thousands of dollars. The seed corn company was willing to pay to have a contractor hire workers and take care of managing the work. It took more skill and a higher level of responsibility to manage the overall detasseling of several acres to meet a schedule, and there are fewer people competing to be contractors and manage a crew.

High quality seed corn hybrids bring top dollar on the market since they produce higher yields and result in more money for the farmers who plant them. There are only a handful of major seed corn producers selling top performing seed corn. Major seed corn companies make millions of dollars selling seed corn.

Lesson: I learned that moving up the value chain is the way to make bigger bucks.

4. Limits of Getting Paid for Your Time

Sometimes during the long hours in the cornfield, I would think about how much I was getting paid. How much was I making per minute? How much was I making per tassel? How could I make more?

The problem was that I was getting paid for my time, and I only had a limited amount of time to work. Even if I could work twice as many hours somehow, that still wouldn't be much money. I realized that the key was to either make a lot per hour, or to be able to sell something like a product instead of selling my time. If I could sell a product, I would no longer be limited by how much time I had available. Perhaps I could even hire people to help make products. The entrepreneurial fire was lit.

Lesson: I learned that selling your time limits how much money you can make.

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5. How to Motivate Workers

I'd often wonder, as we trudged through the field, Why is everyone working so hard? Why don't people just goof off or quit and go home?

One of the reasons that a teacher ended up running the detasseling crew is that he knew a lot of students, and which ones to recruit. The first step toward having good workers is picking the ones who have a positive attitude and will work hard.

Another way to motivate workers was the incentive of a bonus at the end of the season. If we met the schedule and were effective at removing all of the tassels, each worker would receive a bonus of hundreds of dollars. Each day it got harder for workers to walk away as the bonus got closer.

Another incentive was escalating rates of pay. First year workers got $5 per hour, second year workers got $5.50, etc. If you didn't like your pay of $5 per hour, you could just finish out the year and be set to receive a raise next year.

Perhaps the biggest motivation to work hard was peer pressure. When you are on a team with people you know, you don't want to let them down or embarrass yourself by performing poorly. You wouldn't be popular if you quit the job and put everyone's bonus in jeopardy.

Lesson: I learned how employers set up workplace situations to get people to work hard.

6. The World Is Connected

As we were working on detasseling the field, a manager from the seed corn company told us that the seed corn produced from this field was headed for France. I realized that something I was doing in a cornfield not far from home was going to make a difference in the world. A farmer in France was going to be able to produce more corn and make more money by planting the corn hybrid that we were producing.

The seed corn company I was working for would be making a profit on this field. It could reinvest some of the profit to develop even better corn varieties in the future and keep the local operations running. Even though the world is a big place, we are all connected. Something I was doing in Iowa for a few dollars per hour could impact people around the world.

Lesson: I learned that we are all connected through money and by participating in the economy.

Looking back now, I realize that those long hours working in the corn field making my first dollars taught me some valuable lessons about how money works.

What did your summer or first job teach you about money?

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