Monday, October 17, 2011

A portrait of detasseling corn in a changing rural Nebraska.

In response to the many posts and other news coverage that has covered recent changes regarding agriculture and the rural economy, I decided to interview someone who has witnessed these trends first hand.

Ericka K. was born in 1981 and grew up in rural Nebraska. She lived in the town of Doniphan for 17 years and then settled in Lake Tahoe, California. The population of Doniphan was 763 as of the 2000 census.

In many ways her family consists of the typical rural America stereotype: Her father is a small-business owner, her mother works on a Sioux reservation as a special education teacher, one brother is in the military, another brother works for her father, and her sister is a nurse.

Here is what Ericka had to say about rural Nebraska:

Q: Do you consider Doniphan rural, and if so, what makes it rural?
A: Yes, it's a farming community, mainly corn. The corn makes it rural. I always hid in the corn fields when my parents were mad at me. Also, our closest neighbor was over a mile and a half away--if someone killed you no one would hear you scream. That was scary as a kid.

Q: How big was your graduating class?
A: There were 32 people in my class.

Q: When did your family first settle in Nebraska ans what did they do?
A: On my mom's side, my family was in Nebraska since the 1800's farming. The family farm was in a town I don't think even exists anymore. I remember visiting it when I was a kid and there was nothing there, all the buildings were falling apart. On my dad's side, most of the family is still farming in Minnesota. They had animals and grew all types of crops when I was a kid, but now it is all just soy and corn.

Q: What were your activities as a kid, did you have a job?
A: I was in 4H, sports and band. I worked detasseling corn as a teenager. About half of the people in my class detasseled every summer.

Q: What is the detasseling job like?
A: You can start detasseling corn--all feed corn--at 14. It's a 4-6 week job in the summer. You get up early and meet at the school at 6AM. You have to get the work done early because it is so hot in the summer, and even hotter in the fields. I wouldn't do it again. You get spiders and corn all over you. If there are storms with lightning you have to evacuate the fields quickly, but you still get soaked. And it is gnarly when tornado watches are going on. My mom still supervises the kids who do it. I only did it two years, but many kids did it throughout high school.

Q: Has recent immigration changed the demographics of who detassles corn?
A: I don't think so. It was always locals when I worked their. I think it still is. My impression is the immigrants all work in the meat packing plants and factories in that area.

Q: Are people you know in Doniphan still involved in agriculture?
A: Not many. So many of the farms have been bought out--there aren't a lot family farms anymore. It's all being done by a few people now. Probably about 10% of my class still farms.

Q: What does the rest of the people in your class do?
A: Most of them moved out of Doniphan and to close-by larger communities with more job opportunities. Lincoln, Omaha, Hastings, Grand Island. There just aren't jobs in Doniphan. There is one burger joint, a school, and a couple of churches. If you aren't farming or working at the school there is nothing. For example, in Grand Island, which has about 40,000 people, there are two Walmarts. But, none in Doniphan.

Our interview demonstrates, in part, that the rural economy is changing. Part of this change is due to changes in American agriculture. These changes, in turn, effect American culture as so many young rural residents, like Ericka herself, leave their towns to find opportunities that aren't available back home.

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