INSIDE THE SERIES The Gazette is exploring four of Colorado’s iconic crops and the communities that support them. Aug. 12 — Palisade peaches Today — Olathe sweet corn Aug. 26 — Rocky Ford melons Sept. 2 — Pueblo chiles
OLATHE • Is now a bad time? Oh yes, says John Harold. Very bad.
Call later, he says. “Maybe around Christmastime. Say, 2021.”
He and his son, David, are in Tuxedo Corn Co.’s offices, their heads hung over data sheets — sales projections for the biggest provider of sweet corn from these Western Slope fields where it is most famous.
Due to the warmer spring, a shorter harvest is expected. Last year, Tuxedo shipped about 3 million ears of corn to stores around Colorado and beyond, almost 30 states coast to coast. All within about seven weeks. For Harold this summer, the pressure is up with the heat.
What’s more, he’s combatting a cough. “This smoke’s giving me fits,” he manages between chokes, the San Juan Mountains hazy in the distance from wildfires burning.
Harold is into his 32nd season as king of “Olathe sweet” sweet corn. “Olathe sweet” is the title of the trademark he owns, though the flavor is hard to discern in the product also grown by neighboring companies Mountain Fresh and Mountain Quality.
Some in town would dispute any so-called king of “Olathe sweet.” But for the crop’s prominence, it’s hard to credit anyone but Harold, the consummate farmer found in dirt-stained overalls and a ball cap covering white hair, round-rimmed spectacles at the center of a hard-lined, reddened face.
“Some crops were dying off, and John was able to introduce a crop that would help the area instead of let it slowly die off,” says Olathe Mayor Rob Smith. “I’d say he’s had a very positive effect.”
Farmers could no longer rely on the beets in low demand during the 1970s and ‘80s. Rejuvenation came with of a scientist’s hybrid seed that yielded ears tender and juicy, the kernels a buttery yellow and milky white.
The valley’s warm days and cool nights buoyed Dave Galinat’s experiment here, but in past interviews he has cited “a sugary enhancer gene” for the unforgettable sweetness. (He still lives in the area, still answers calls from Tuxedo, but he’s not known as a social type, more a reclusive genius consumed by the next project.)
Galinat founded his seed company in 1978, and Harold went on to develop a process by which the corn could be harvested and marketed on a large scale.
Head-aching trial and error led to discoveries: the perfect timing of planting, the measuring of soil temperature, formulating fertilizer. Hand picking, Harold learned, was essential. And by making slushy ice and packing it on the corn, the sweet sweetness could be preserved till it reached shelves.
He took all these chances and all the debt with it.
“He would just be getting done for the day, and the sun was just starting to come up,” David says, “and he wished he could push the sun back down, just to have another couple of hours before the next day started. It was a struggle.”
Since 1987, Tuxedo has only grown. And at 78, Harold is showing no signs of slowing down, which kind of worries his son.
“I mean, yeah, I worry he’ll have a heart attack in a cornfield somewhere,” David says. “It’s unpleasant to think about that, but it’s probably more unpleasant for me to tell him, ‘No, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you need to quit and relax in the house.’ That’s not a good option either.”
For field work, Harold and other distributors depend on agriculture’s typical workforce: visitors with H-2A visas. At Tuxedo’s headquarters beside U.S. 50 rises a billboard announcing the “HOME OF OLATHE SWEET SWEET,” and under this billboard sit the apartments where men and women from Mexico live every summer.
By day they’re chest-deep in the fields. Men pick the corn and toss the bundles on the racks of a harvester, the double-wing machine that creeps slowly through rows. Women fill boxes and move them down the wings, to be stacked on the truck bed and shuttled promptly to the cooler and packed with ice.
Adding the cost of transportation and housing, Harold says, he pays workers $15 an hour. The livelihood has encouraged some to seek permanent residence in Olathe over the years. The population of about 1,800 is almost half Hispanic, much to the displeasure of some from the other half.
“Fighting the prejudice is a bit of a struggle,” Smith says.
Harold, the mayor before Smith, is the easy target of the perceived issue. Maybe he didn’t start Olathe sweet corn, but he’s quickly criticized for starting the non-English-speaking influx. A committee, Making Olathe Better, has one goal: to bridge the language barrier in town, with a Tuxedo employee serving as that bridge, teaching Spanish and English. Some aren’t too keen on that, Smith says.
Harold helped organize Olathe’s Sweet Corn Festival 27 years ago. What started as an initiative by the town is now in the hands of a nonprofit. Voters could not stand by their tax dollars funding the event, says Smith, who estimates maybe 8,000 attended the fest this month, down from the 25,000 that once came.
Tourist destinations on either side of Olathe “take the thunder away,” Smith says. But it’s also impossible for him to ignore the local lack of interest in the crop that put the town on the map.
Residents “want to be known for other things,” the mayor says.
A few years ago, he thought to use grant money on a statue celebrating the corn legacy. “I can’t tell you how many people told me not to do that, they will lynch you.”
Smith hasn’t always agreed with his predecessor. But he respects Harold and struggles to understand what he sees as deep-seated animosity.
“I think it’s just a jealousy thing,” he says. “He stuck his neck out to do this, where a lot of people wouldn’t. They’re mad because he’s successful and they’re not.”
Americans don’t want the part-time jobs, and they’re not as hard-working, Harold insists. So the H-2A workers aren’t going away — unless it’s demanded.
“The uncertainty with this administration, maybe tomorrow morning they say they’re no longer available,” he says.
Uncertainty constantly hovers over the sweet corn industry. After tapping water reserves this season, there’s palpable fear of another dry winter.
“If we don’t get a bunch of snow, we’re gonna be in really bad dire straits next year, almost insurmountable,” says Zach Ahlberg, the fourth-generation farmer overseeing Mountain Fresh.
But nothing has stopped the family. Nothing has stopped Ahlberg’s 88-year-old grandfather from work still around the farm.
And nothing is stopping Harold. He worries, but working is a way of avoiding worry.
And working is a way of avoiding talk — no time to linger over accomplishments, shortcomings, his complicated legacy.
“Just a way of life,” he says, speaking briefly as he makes rounds at Tuxedo’s headquarters.
Corn arrives from the fields, and front-loaders zip around, taking boxes to the cooler, removing other boxes to be loaded onto trucks shipping out. Ice is shoveled from a big pile and packed on.
A fruit-stand operator from Pagosa Springs arrives to collect her own supply. “We have people line up for this stuff,” she says. That pleases Harold.
He takes handfuls of slush and packs it around the boxes, careful not to miss any spaces between, sure to preserve that “Olathe sweet.” He waves and watches the corn go, and then he turns away, back to work with the sun still high.