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Teens give life back to the kernels: Pollinators walk fields to help seed company develop new lines of corn

FNS Photo by Tracy Frank Quinn Fenger, a Minnesota State University Moorhead sophomore biology major, works as a corn pollinator for DuPont Pioneer.

SABIN, Minn. — Every summer dozens of teens and adults walk acres of cornfields near this western Minnesota town, pollinating the plants.

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It’s a practice that’s been going on since the 1980s in the local DuPont Pioneer fields. But Matt Walch, a research scientist with DuPont Pioneer, said the company has been pollinating corn by hand since it was founded in the 1920s. The practice of hand-pollination, he said, is “as old as the hills.”

The Iowa-based company, formerly called Pioneer Hi-Bred, produces hybrid agricultural seed. The company provides seeds to farmers in more than 90 countries.

The fields near Sabin are breeding fields for the company, so the corn there has to be pollinated according to a specific process. Every summer, DuPont Pioneer hires “pollinators” ages 14 and up for a few weeks of full-time work to help with that effort.

The pollinators transfer pollen from one plant to another or from the tassel to the corn silk on the same stalk of corn. They use paper bags to cover the tassel and capture the pollen one day, and then they transfer the bag to the ear of corn and shake it to pollinate the plant. The ear is kept covered before and after pollination to make sure no errant pollen floating through the air fertilizes the plant.

“Corn is a cross-pollinating crop, so it’s very important we control what pollen gets on what plants,” said Arielle Ehli, a DuPont Pioneer senior research associate.

The company is working to develop new lines of corn, Walch said.

“In terms of breeding and making improvements, it’s critical that we know what’s pollinating what,” Walch said. “The way we do it is crossing parents together that we think are interesting, that are bringing traits to that table that we’re excited to work with, and then we screen them in farmers’ fields to determine which ones of them show some advantage.”

They’re looking for traits like yield, maturity, resistance to disease and corn that stands up to storms, he said.

“(What) the corn farmers grow is a hybrid, which means we cross two parents together to make the seed that eventually farmers are going to plant and grow,” Walch said.

The company, Walch said, depends on the pollinators.

“We wouldn’t be able to do the work without them,” he said.

Because the plants flower on different days, the pollinators walk the whole 30-acre field every day. One day’s work ends up being about seven miles of walking, said Fran Thompson, one of the pollinator leaders.

Tanner Cattanach of Fargo has been working with the company for seven or eight years. The 24-year-old said it’s a good summer job.

“You work with a good group of people outside all day,” he said.

This is the first year Quinn Fenger of Moorhead has worked as a pollinator. The 19-year-old is a sophomore at Minnesota State University Moorhead. As a biology major, he said he thought working for DuPont Pioneer would make for a good summer job.

“It ties in with what I’m learning,” he said. “It’s more hands-on instead of just looking at a book.”

DuPont Pioneer recruits pollinators in early June. To apply, call (218) 299-8610.

Tracy Frank

Tracy Frank is a SheSays, Variety, and Farmer's Forum reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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