brief preface: i live in iowa, one of the united states’ largest producers of corn (as in maize for those overseas), and worked at a corn breeding research facility. these guys are in charge of creating new lines of seed for farmers to grow; i took the job because it was the only plant science-related job i could, and it sucked but it wasn’t the worst job ive ever had and i made bank because it sucked and no one wanted to do it. there were two parts to this job: data collection and pollination. i wrote out a huge thing on the details of these and then decided it was too long and rambly so imma just gonna skip that stuff and get to the Weird Liminal Space Corn Stories:
-for data collection, our job was to take plant an ear hights in fields all around iowa, meaning that we would get to work in the morning and they would load us up into transit vans and drive us out to a random small town with a test field for testing. once we got there, we had 16-foot-tall wooden measuring sticks we would unfold and bring into the field with us, and the instructions from there were simple: 2 people on each side of the breeder. you measure the line of corn behind you by sticking ur stick next to an average looking plant and reading off first how far up on the plant the first ear of corn was, then reading off how far the base of the flag leaf was. then, you turn around to face the line of corn behind you, and while youre turning around and sticking your measuring stick into the ground on that side your partner reads there numbers, you read your second line of numbers, your partner reads their second line, and then you walk into the nearest alley and march up two lines of corn while the people on the other side of the breeder go. you read the two data points on one side. your partner reads and u turn around. you read the data points behind you. your partner does. while you are going, your breeder is walking up the field typing in the numbers on a data logger and the other team is walking up two rows. once you reach the end of the field, your breeder stops you, you walk two plots down and turn the other direction. you read off your data points, ect, you do that all the way down the field. you do this for hours until your set is done. all told, once your team of 5 people gets oriented and going, it should sound like this to you:
stick. 65, 102. turn. stick. 68, 104. pick up stick. walk down two rows. stick. 85, 102. turn. stick. 84, 103. pick up stick. walk down two rows. ect. you have to annunciate yourself and not talk to your teamates so the breeder can hear you through the corn. on windy days, you have to shout. you dont have time to stop and talk; you actually barely have time to do anything but focus on the manual task of number, turn, number, walk, number, turn, number, walk. when we were done, we would come out covered in sweat and dirt with our sticks, pile in the transit van, and drive like, the 2-3 hours back. work days were about 9 hours with 5 in the field, meaning that you worked 40 hours a week and could do overtime on weekends doing pollination (which was actually really fun).
-no headphones. at first i thought that rule was stupid, but like, once you enter a cornfield you realize that this is because 1. if someone is screaming your name you need to be able to hear and 2. corn touches everything; when you’re in the corn, there is always something touching you. we wore special hats with veils, long pants, long shirts, eye protection, and closed toed shoes because the corn leaves are sharp and will cut you up; i have scars from this. your headphones would get ripped out within like, .3 seconds, because like corn just snags and slices up everything.
-one time, on the hottest day of the summer, we were doing the number-turn-number-walk routine and heard someone yelling for our breeder guy. he stopped us short and called back, and like, this is the scary part about cornfields: like i said in the tags of that one post, corn swallows up sound more than anything. it’s impossible to tell where you are and impossible to hear anything, even if you scream, so its best to stay close to your team unless your doing solo work, and if you’re doing solo work like, for the love of god, keep walking in the direction youre supposed to be walking until you’re finished. trust that theres something on the other side, even if you cant see it. but anyway; hes yelling, and shes yelling, and suddenly she bursts through the corn after searching for us and says that this one kid is having a seizure. queue both of them running out of the corn and we’re just standing there. eventually we hear one of the other breeders yelling “___’s group, where are you?!” and we’re like “over here! we’re over here!” and put our sticks up, and the other breeder comes into the alley and we keep doing data points. we had like, 6 kids go home that day because of how hot it was (over 100 degrees) and we ended up not finishing the field because they decided it wasnt safe for us to work anymore. (also, kid was predisposed to seizures and they took him home, he was fine and came back to work a couple days later)
-i kind of talked about this in the tags of that other post, but i think the scariest day was the day we were in a test field a little ways away from the research center. it was kind of stormy but we were like ok whatever, we’ve gotten rained on before with no problem, queue us starting the data collection for the day. its…..really windy. like. i wish i could recreate that feel in art or something or even film it someday, because 1. when the wind blew, the whole field-which, remember, this is our whole world when we’re in there because you can’t see anything but corn in every direction- moved. like, bended, which is typical of corn because like yeah duh it does that, but its like if you were standing in a hallway and suddenly all the walls bent with the wind and so did the cieling. it was that disorienting; i actually stumbled a few times because the only steady thing was the ground and 2. it was loud, like a weird roar in the background. everything is rustling all around you at once. we had to scream our numbers for the breeder to hear us, and when i moved my measuring stick would catch the wind and drag me back a little. then, we heard thunder in the distance. our breeder was like “okay guys we’re gonna finish this field because we’re only like 4 ranges away from the road” and we’re like ok yeah, 40 plots, we can do this. the wind picked up, we kept moving at like twice the pace to get out of there, and when we reached the end it was really close and our breeder was like “come on we have to go now” and we like, picked up our sticks and ran through the corn bending around us with the thunder and everything, can i say midwestern gothic because ive never experienced midwestern gothic more than 4 teenagers with corn sticks and a dude with a data logger running through a discombobulating corn haze at 11am with thunder rolling in. we get to the edge of the field, scramble over the barbed wire fence because we are not running through the rest of the field. in a hot second more teams emerge from the field at various speeds just as it starts storming. we pack up our sticks. our team of four gets in our breeder’s pickup truck and we drive back in the rain. it was a look guys ngl
-throwback to when i just finished doing solo tagging of the ranges in the corn in a field three hours away from the research center. our breeder said to meet him back at the truck when we were done, so when i reach the end of the field having stapled on tags for around 100 ranges (about ten minutes of walking and stapling alone in a single line; these tags will help orient harvesting in the fall), i turn around and start heading straight back, because like again, when you’re in the corn alone its best to know exactly where you are and the way out is always a straight line. i start following my tagging trail back. about five minutes into walking i hear rustling near me. y’all, i was not ready, started jogging and checking behind me and after a little bit i slow down because i feel like i lost whatever it was. rustling continues like its following me. hellno.jpg, not today, i run out of the corn into the alley on the other side, decide i must have imagined it, and start walking towards the truck. as it turns out it was another one of the guys who didn’t know where to go, saw me from his row, and was following me to find his way out of the corn. almost died that day y’all
-occasionally we would visit fields to do brittle snap count, which is lining up, walking a plot, stopping, and yelling out how many broken stalks of corn we counted in the plot we just walked through, then continuing. the whole thing is that farmers understandably hate it when all their corn breaks and dies. we went to this one field that had been hit by a wind storm; it was a really hot day and we were all like dying. this is where my aforementioned scarring comes in. in cornfields, there exists a thingy called corn rash. this is where the corn hits your skin so much that it makes tiny cuts all over you, and then pollen from said corn gets in the cuts along with sweat. it is the worst time i have ever experienced in my life like literally nope would not recommend. eventually we realized that half this field of test crop was broken. like, we stopped counting the amount of plants with broken stems and instead started counting the amount of plants still standing. i was wearing all the protection i needed/that was required (so was everyone else), but it was so hot that literally all of us had corn rash and i was bleeding, big yikes. eventually our super nice breeder for the day realized that we were Struggling™ and was like ok listen we’re going back this isn’t worth it and all the corn is literally dead inexplicably anyway and then took us to get gas station ice cream after bc she felt bad for us lmao, a blessing
-talked to the breeders a lot and asked a ton of questions. learned that sunflower breeding is a thing that happens and that they’re bred to be larger to bear more seed for like, those bags of sunflower seeds you see at gas stations. the more u know