As teens wait for work, ag firms turn to guest workers to tend to Midwest cornfields
For decades, corn detasseling was a customary summer job for teenagers in Nebraska and the rest of the Corn Belt. In recent years, however, agriculture companies are relying more on migrant labor to do this work through a visa program meant to supplement the local workforce.
Over time, Lynn Leif found herself with less and less work to offer to teenagers.
For more than 40 years, Leif and her family employed up to 500 middle and high schoolers to detassel corn in July and August. Based in York, Nebraska, she ran buses to pick up teens in neighboring Seward and all the way to Lincoln one hour away.
Her family contracted for Syngenta as well as Monsanto, the St. Louis-based agricultural behemoth that German-based Bayer bought in 2018 for $68 billion. Leif was in the business of finding workers to detassel more than 2,700 acres of corn controlled by the two large agriculture companies throughout her region of southeast Nebraska.
New advances in herbicides and plant breeding over the years meant Monsanto needed fewer people to detassel corn. And of those fewer people Monsanto used, more of them were migrant workers.
It became unsustainable for Leif to hire all these teens with so little work to do.
“It was hard for our kids because they used this for so long as an income and some of them had worked for us for years,” she said.
Leif first detasseled at 13 years old. More than 40 years later, she is out of the corn detasseling business altogether. For her, that was an adjustment.
“I never knew what you did in July other than detasseling,” she said.
Other corn detasseling operations have faced similar experiences as seed companies like Bayer, Syngenta and Remington Seeds, which control a growing amount of the Midwest’s cropland, increasingly use the H-2A visa program to hire temporary migrant workers. The H-2A program allows agriculture companies to hire migrant workers if they cannot find enough domestic workers.
For decades, corn detasseling has been more than just a job for Nebraska teenagers. Pulling the tassel off the top of corn stalks to prevent self-pollination paid well above minimum wage and offered pay raises to return following years. And, given the manual labor involved, detasseling was seen as a rite of passage for teenagers in Nebraska and the rest of the Corn Belt, a task that taught lessons in work ethic for young Midwesterners.
A Nebraska Public Media News investigation found that in Nebraska, hundreds of teenagers have expressed interest in detasseling corn at the same time seed companies opted to use migrant workers.
Nebraska Public Media News also learned that job postings for corn detasseling contained misleading or unrealistic job requirements that appeared to discourage local workers from applying.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration sought to direct seed companies toward using local workers, but the U.S. Department of Labor intervened and said temporary guest workers had already been approved and must be used.
One of the major companies involved with detasseling authored a presentation that detailed its decision to prioritize migrant workers because they required less company oversight and were more productive.
The result is what local detasseling contractors say is a vanishing opportunity for local teenagers and the use of migrant workers who are sometimes taken advantage of for the benefits of their employers.
“Detasseling is a huge cultural part of the state of Nebraska,” said Taylor Gage, a former staffer for Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. “Really one of the biggest and most important aspects of this is it helps bridge the urban-rural divide.”
‘710 employees wait-listed’
In 2019, Gov. Ricketts took note of a wait-list that contained hundreds of Nebraskans who were interested in detasseling corn that summer. So, it came as a surprise to learn that contractors for seed companies had been approved to hire migrant workers under the H-2A program.
The H-2A visa, created in 1986, allows agricultural companies to hire seasonal temporary foreign workers. But companies can only bring on H-2A workers after they’ve shown that they tried to hire local workers and found there’s not enough interest or capability.
Ricketts wrote to federal officials later that year to let them know local workers wanted to detassel corn.
“In 2019, Nebraska detasseling (harvest) companies had 710 employees wait-listed,” Ricketts wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor, “but certifications were still granted for H-2A workers to perform detasseling.”
Ricketts heard from local contractors who raised concerns about the trend of contractors for seed companies using H-2A workers. His letter urged the Department of Labor to reform the H-2A program by requiring seed companies to first petition the local contractors for the amount of available work before they can apply for migrant workers, which is not currently a requirement.
“This requirement would ensure that the hiring of American workers is prioritized and prevent seed companies from manipulating the system by indirectly employing H-2A workers through the utilization of third-party harvest companies when there are more than adequate numbers of American workers who are willing to perform the needed services,” Ricketts’ letter said.
Asked about Ricketts’ letter, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) said a wait list of available teenage laborers amounted to insufficient evidence to prompt federal officials to act.
“Such a waitlist may show individuals are interested generally in employment in a certain area, such as corn detasseling, but it is not evidence that U.S. workers actually applied for a specific job opportunity offered in conjunction with an H-2A application or U.S. workers applied and were unlawfully rejected,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.
In order for the U.S. DOL to reject an H-2A application, the department needed evidence that Nebraska workers both applied to those jobs and were unlawfully rejected, according to the spokesperson.
But Nebraska Department of Labor officials investigated job postings for detasseling jobs and found signs that job descriptions discouraged local applicants.
Deceptive job descriptions
John Albin, the Nebraska Labor Commissioner, and Bradley Pierce, the director of re-eeployment services at Nebraska’s DOL, checked postings for detasseling jobs listed on their website – NEworks.nebraska.gov.
Pierce said NDOL found no evidence that wages were discriminatory, or that migrant workers were treated unfairly.
But Nebraska labor officials discovered that seed companies and H-2A contractors posted what appeared to be deceptive job descriptions.
Some of the job descriptions said detasseling work would last through October, far later in the season that usually wraps up by the end of August — and during a time when teenagers return to school.
“You don’t have to be an agronomy major to know that nobody's detasseling in Nebraska in October,” Albin said.
Some postings required workers to be at least 18 years old, even though people as young as 12 can detassel legally in Nebraska.
Other job applications asked for hemp detasseling.
“Hemp cannot be detasseled,” Pierce wrote in an email to the U.S. DOL’s Chicago office in May 2020.
Listing a job with unreasonable age requirements, unnecessary experience, much longer seasons and overly-detailed job responsibilities are among various tactics to strategically yield few — especially teenage — applicants, Albin and Pierce said.
“Obviously, some of the terms and conditions were not conducive with the local employment of youth,” Pierce said.
Asked whether or not these actions appeared to be intentional and deliberate, Albin said he didn’t know.
“It's difficult to read anyone's mind, and I think we're pretty good administrators, but mind readers, we're not,” Albin said. “It certainly can have that effect.”
In 2020, Nebraska rejected four H-2A petitions for detasseling jobs, but the U.S. Department of Labor overruled Nebraska. A state workforce agency does not have the authority to reject federal H-2A petitions. Under federal rules, Nebraska’s DOL could change what’s included in job applications. Albin and Pierce now amend any job applications seen with deceitful or disingenuous hiring tactics.
“It's sad to consider that a win because that's how it should be in general,” Pierce said.
‘We don’t find enough people’
Javier Chapa defends the use of H-2A workers.
He owns Chapa Global Contracting Inc., and has worked in the agricultural labor business for 34 years out of McAllen, Texas.
During detasseling season, Chapa runs one of the many H-2A migrant crews working in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. In Nebraska, he contracts with Remington Seeds.
“We don't find enough people (who want) to do the job, and I understand the reason: Because it's hard work,” Chapa said from his pickup truck parked outside of Hastings, Nebraska. “I mean, the youngest generations, they go to school to try not to be in the fields.”
Since 2013, he’s hired H-2A workers because, he said, Chapa Global Contracting's job postings have yielded very few local applicants.
"We give priority to the American people. We’re advertising but sometimes nobody calls. If somebody calls and wants to work, we have to hire." Javier Chapa, Chapa Global Contracting Inc.
Chapa writes the job descriptions for detasseling jobs with the help of lawyers and employment experts. He also petitions the federal government for H-2A workers. He said both Remington and his company follow DOL rules.
“We don’t try to take nobody’s job,” Chapa said. “We just tried to cover what the local people don’t want to do or they can’t do.”
Chapa was the only H-2A contractor who agreed to an interview for this story.
Triple M and Gulf Citrus, Florida companies that both contract with Bayer, did not respond to nine interview requests. Rodriguez Harvesting, another H-2A contractor that’s based in Georgia and works with Syngenta, declined an interview request.
Multiple Syngenta employees in Nebraska did not return calls seeking comment. A corporate spokesman declined an interview request but provided Nebraska Public Media written answers to a detailed list of questions.
“Third-party contractors are responsible for assembling and hiring the mix of workers and would be best to answer any questions regarding their hiring practices,” the spokesman wrote in a statement.
The Syngenta spokesman said H-2A workers provide seed companies with flexibility, which is why they are needed.
“In general, having access to both local workers and H-2A workers — both hired/provided by third-party contractors — allows seed companies to balance the inconsistent schedules of young people working in the local labor crews,” the spokesman wrote. “Many young people involved in detasseling typically have other summer activities that conflict with their ability to work during the key part of the season.”
According to the spokesman, who declined to provide details about the workforce Syngenta uses to detassel corn, three-fourths of the detasseling is supported by local workers.
“Young people are a key part of our success to completing this important seed production work, allowing us to deliver the quality products that farmers need to meet their crop demands.”
‘I was a little upset’
Heather Scar runs a pig farm in western Iowa, near the small town of Adair, between Omaha and Des Moines. She ran detasseling crews of mostly local teenagers for 11 years.
AgReliant Genetics, one of the two corn seed companies she worked for, told her in May they didn’t need her team this year.
“I was a little upset because there wasn't any indication that we wouldn't be coming back this year until they called,” she said.
Scar also detasseled fields for what was then Monsanto, which Bayer bought in 2018. The largely agrochemical company told Scar three years ago it would be using other contractors for the summer’s detasseling. Both AgReliant and Bayer later told her those were H-2A migrant crews, she said.
Tiffany Wenzel lost her Michigan acres in 2020.
“I'm trying to see if we can get those acres back,” Wenzel said.
Wenzel, 41, took over her family farm and detasseling business that started long before she was born. Before Wenzel’s family business, Myers Detasseling, closed, it employed up to 200 workers who traveled in five buses to the “corn capital of the world.”
Michigan is home to two major corn seed companies near Constantine, Michigan, in the southwest corner of the state.
Bayer informed Wenzel she wasn’t needed this year because of a decrease in acres Bayer would need to detassel, she said.
“They were pleased with our work,” Wenzel said. “It was nothing against our company, but they simply didn't need as many contractors.”
At first, Wenzel said she was relieved. For the first time in years, she could attend a July wedding. But later in the summer, she saw detasselers out in the fields, and she realized she missed being out there. She said she felt slighted because the work is still being done – just not by her crew.
She spoke to her Bayer representative, who told her at least some of the new crews were H-2A workers.
“If I have local workers who can do the work, then I should be given that precedence over a non-local crew,” she said.
Multiple Nebraska detasselers who are still in business declined to comment for this story out of fear of retribution from seed companies.
Migrant worker motivation
In a presentation obtained by Nebraska Public Media through a public records request, Bayer laid out its rationale for choosing H-2A workers.
The Bayer presentation, which was sent by the Nebraska Department of Labor’s general counsel to a federal employee, says the seed company will use more “independent” labor in future.
The H-2A program fits under this “independent” classification and forgoes Bayer’s responsibility to provide workers compensation, liability or unemployment insurance because an H-2A contractor would take responsibility. In some cases, the company would also be relieved from paying for housing, transportation and even drinking water for detasselers. Independent agricultural labor only requires Bayer to provide personal protective equipment.
The other option is the “traditional” labor models, which include local teenagers, and require more direct involvement from Bayer, like timekeeping and payroll.
The presentation also acknowledges raising the minimum age to 14 years old discouraged what it called the “feeder effect.” In other words, raising the minimum age would reduce the number of workers who catch on to corn detasseling at a young age and return to the job the following year.
This shift to H-2A workers by Bayer reflects a larger trend in the industry. In the last 10 years, the number of H-2A workers in Corn Belt states has exploded.
H-2A workers aren’t limited to detasseling corn. According to data from the U.S. DOL, many migrants herd sheep, construct farm equipment or harvest fruit. Attorneys who specialize in farmworkers’ and migrant workers’ rights at Iowa Legal Aid said H-2As are often used regularly in the pork industry in that state.
Nebraska has seen a nearly 250% increase in H-2A workers from 2015 to 2021, according to a Nebraska Public Media analysis of data from the U.S. DOL. H-2A workers also rapidly increased in other Corn Belt states over the same time frame. In 2015, for example, the DOL approved 809 H-2A workers for work in Illinois. In 2021, the DOL approved 3,010.
The Bayer presentation also said there’s less corn for workers to detassel because of new developments in crop herbicides and genetically modified corn that requires less manual labor.
“While we’ve seen some shifts in labor as a whole, across Nebraska, the vast majority of our workers continue to be local youth laborers,” a Bayer spokesperson wrote in a statement. “The entire industry continues to face challenges in recruiting youth workers, and in many cases, these positions go unfilled.”
In 2020, the chief operating officer of Bayer’s crop science division sent a letter to Ricketts after the two spoke.
“I appreciate your passion for agriculture and your interest in our operations in Nebraska,” Brett Begemann wrote to Ricketts from St. Louis. “At Bayer, we support the opportunity to provide employment in the communities where we have sites located. Nebraskans, both youth and adult, will always be a critical part of our summer labor force.”
The letter was obtained through a public records request to the governor’s office.
Begemann said in the letter (dated May 6, 2020) that Bayer would employ 2,050 to 2,670 youth and 187 to 207 adult H-2A workers for detasseling that summer.
Bayer also declined interview requests. In a statement for this story, the Bayer spokesperson stressed detasseling looks much different today than a generation ago.
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“Migrant labor crews allow us to address our detasseling labor needs, while also diversifying our workforce and providing valuable talent in other parts of our production operations, including harvest, for example,” the spokesperson wrote. “Using this workforce in this manner helps us streamline our approach to meeting our labor needs.”
Danny Reynaga, a Legal Aid attorney in western Nebraska, said the shift to migrant work has been clear in his line of work.
“It's very common to run across H-2A workers, especially when you're speaking with other folks in the advocacy world particularly here in Nebraska,” the Scottsbluff attorney said.
The son of migrant workers said farm work has changed over the last few decades because advancements in farming equipment and chemicals have eliminated traditional agricultural worker jobs.
“I think what we have now is a much more intense, more focused need — and it's for a shorter period of time,” Reynaga said. “That's where these H-2A workers are coming in.”
And while these jobs and the H-2A program are undeniably necessary for the industry, employers sometimes take advantage of migrant workers.
“When you see a lot of H-2A workers, you're going to see more worker rights issues.” Danny Reynaga, Nebraska Legal Aid attorney
“The fact of the matter is that H-2A workers are vulnerable, to a large extent, and most would say, probably more vulnerable than U.S. workers for a variety of reasons,” said Reynaga.
Reynaga and Iowa Legal Aid lawyers say common worker rights issues can manifest in wage theft, not getting paid when they should, poor housing or being overworked. Migrant workers can be vulnerable because they may not speak the common language and a fear of being blacklisted for future work if they raise concerns.
“If you're an employer, what you want out of your workforce is productivity,” Reynaga said. “And when you hire H-2A workforce, typically you're going to get productivity. You're usually hiring someone who's done this before, who's coming year after year, and, by most regards, is going to be a good solid worker.”
Nebraska Legal Aid settled a lawsuit in 2021 against Florida-based Gulf Citrus, a company that contracts migrant workers in Nebraska to detassel.
The 13 migrant workers who sued said Gulf Citrus did not record all the hours they worked, did not credit them with all the acres they completed and did not give them promised bonuses, as reported by the Lincoln Journal Star.
Gulf Citrus showed menus with meals including grilled meat and chicken, burritos and tacos. For several days in a row, the workers were only served eggs, rice and onions, according to the lawsuit. The drinking water in the fields was dirty and tasted bad. An airplane sprayed pesticides on a field next to where the migrant crew worked, leading to breathing problems and an asthma attack for one worker who did not get medical care.
When asked if seed companies chose an H-2A workforce over domestic labor, Reynaga wouldn’t say there’s systemic oppression of migrant workers.
“I'm also not going to go as far as to say that there wouldn't be those talks,” he said. “I'm sure, at some level, there is that discussion – that idea that you can get away with a little bit more with H-2A workers.”
It’s not lost on Chapa, who runs the H-2A contracting business, that migrant workers are sometimes treated poorly by employers. But that’s not the case in the slightest with him, he said.
“We get treated fairly,” Chapa said. “I respect my workers because they are human beings.”
‘We’ll see what happens’
At age 13, Daniel Miller is already 5 feet 9 inches tall. His mom, Katie Miller, detasseled as a teenager and thought her son would be perfect for tall corn.
“I thought it'd be a cool thing — fun,” Daniel said. “Well, not really fun, but maybe fun. Something to do that would get me some money.”
The homeschooler from Lincoln was one of the hundreds of applicants stuck on waitlists this year. His mom thought a waitlist for detasseling was unusual. When she detasseled, there was such a high demand.
By the time Daniel applied, it was late in the summer so he didn’t get another summer job. He said he’s saving up for a PlayStation and a television. That will have to wait until next year when he applies again.
“I hope that the opportunity is still in place for Nebraska teens and kids,” Katie Miller said. “Next year is a new year. We'll see what happens.”
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.
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