Seed Development

A version of this story was first published February 20, 2018, on the Life at Mead & Hunt page of http://www.meadhunt.com

Cornfields. 

I should have expected it, as I grew up in Eldora, a rural Iowa farming community. Still, I was disappointed gazing out an Iowa State dorm window and seeing nothing but cornfields, from street to distant horizon.

I knew little about architecture, aside from the fact it was different from my dad’s job at Northrup King, a major seed corn company. That was the point. My childhood revolved around the annual farming cycle: spring planting, summer detasseling, fall harvest, repeat ad infinitum.

Detasseling is the act of removing the tassel, the pollen-producing flower, from the tops of corn plants. It is simply pollination control: removing tassels from female plants of one variety allows the grain growing on those plants to be fertilized by remaining tassels of the male plants, resulting in a hybrid and the farmer’s goal of higher yields. Yes, there really are male and female corn plants.

Detasseling is labor intensive. In the Gaard household, joining the crew was an expectation. I suspect Dad may have pulled strings to allow my sister and me to start before reaching minimum age. Umm…thanks Dad. For several weeks each July, we boarded the bus early every morning and spent our days walking the rows, braving heat, humidity, and occasional rainy days and mud. Cancellations were cheered, though rare; Corwin’s definition of “rain” differed from mine!

As a young boy, I often tagged along with Dad to work. At the plant, he would chat with warehouse workers and office colleagues. In the fields, he assessed crop status with respect to weather and time of year: Behind or ahead of schedule? Which fields need attention? Destinations of the detasseling bus were sometimes revised in order to revisit certain fields; woe to the crew that missed too many tassels!

Later, I worked college summers in the plant warehouse. I could see Dad was adept at corporate management, dealing with schedule, budget and personnel issues daily. During breaks, though, he would join the blue-collar staff: warehouse and seasonal workers like myself. The guys liked Dad. They knew if they worked hard Virg would watch their backs.

I recall a few Sunday afternoon phone calls, alerting Dad about a farmer with a stuck tractor. Off he went, certain to miss Sunday supper again (we ate dinner at noon in those days), sometimes muttering “I told him that field was still too wet!”, but there was no time for second guessing. Daylight hours are precious, a larger tractor would be found, work would get done; in short, Dad took care of his farmers.

Through it all, Dad demonstrated a commitment to fairness and getting things done, treating everyone the same, whether wearing coveralls and muddy boots or a business suit.

In recent years, I recognized Dad’s influence on my career. Pointing out the similarities of our respective jobs, Dad found it more than a little amusing. Management processes to transform a kernel of corn into a mature corn plant, I reasoned, are analogous to those I use every day as project manager and architect. There are phone calls to make; workload/personnel issues to address; and financial reporting to corporate headquarters. Equipment breakdowns—much like unexpected construction issues in my business—demand immediate attention. All the while, an eye must be kept on current and forecasted weather conditions, to nurture the crop to a successful harvest.

Without either of us realizing it, Dad showed me how to be a project manager.

One of today’s joys are regular trips to The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids. As I pass the lush and rolling farmland, seeing farmers hard at work, I am reminded of my own relationship to the land and its influence on me to this day. There is an undeniable beauty to the landscape, in ways I never appreciated as a boy. From winter dormancy, followed by spring planting, the rolling green waves of mid-summer, and the late afternoon golden glow of harvest season, it never disappoints.

Just don’t make me pull another tassel.

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