PEA GREEN — Dawn is breaking everywhere as the stillness of Sunday morning is interrupted by the sound of ears of corn being ripped from waist-high plants in the ground. An old Ford 350 motor slowly chugs to life as about two dozen migrant workers quietly walk into a field to begin the first day of the annual Tuxedo Corn Company’s Olathe Sweet sweet corn harvest.
Historically, Tuxedo’s first day of harvest begins in a field a few miles west of Pea Green, a rural crossroads near the Montrose and Delta county line. It is here, in fields still damp from recent monsoon rains, that farmer John Harold and his sons begin the company’s 38th harvest season.
At about 5:30, before sunrise, the workers climb aboard a large mechanical harvester to begin the process of hand-picking and packaging corn. The three truck loads picked for the day will carefully traverse the Continental Divide on Interstate 70 and be distributed to awaiting stores in Denver.
Tuxedo Corn sweet corn is too tender to harvest by machine. So to avoid damage to the ears, it must be picked by human hands. Some of the workers have been working this same soil for decades. This week they’ll also be training new workers, some of whom arrived about a week ago from Tijuana, about the repetitive work of harvesting sweet corn.
This year’s yield is expected to be about average: 600,000 boxes, Harold says. With 48 ears per box, that’s 28.8 million ears of the company’s famous Olathe Sweet brand sweet corn leaving the Uncompahgre Valley for Kroger grocery stores from Alaska to Virginia.
A wet spring paired with early monsoon rains has had positive and negative impacts on the crop. Harold says the water situation in the valley has been “adequate,” and most farmers have seen real benefits this year. But rains arrived earlier than normal, and may have played a role in the corn’s overall quality.
“It’s been awfully wet, and I think that’s the problem with the corn’s maturity, it’s too wet,” says Harold, 82, as he checks as many boxes as he can before they get stacked on a truck. He’s pleased so far, though this is only day one.
But there is something about this year that is different: A new set of challenges spawned by a water crisis in the American West, compounded by inflation and labor shortages. In an effort to control these variables, the company pulled back on the number of acres it planted this season.
“You plan ahead, then you’re behind, then you plan behind and then you’re ahead,” Harold says jokingly.
Due to a worsening water crisis in the West, Tuxedo Corn is fielding phone calls from desperate grocery store buyers, particularly from California, where demand for summer sweet corn is extra high.
Tuxedo Corn Company, Harold says, has been asked to fill in major gaps in the nation’s corn supply chain this year. “There’s no corn in the country and now everybody needs corn. That’s just the life of a farmer.”
And then there are rising costs brought on by — and feeding into — record inflation.
“Prices are going to be a real concern, everything has gone up, the carton cost, pallet cost, labor cost, you name it, it’s gone up,” Harold says.
By 6:30 a.m., the first truck has left the field en route to Tuxedo Corn’s shipping facility where the boxes will be inspected and iced before being loaded onto trucks. Colorado consumers can be confident they will begin seeing the prized corn in grocery stores starting this week.
Inflation, demand and new labor laws passed this year by the Colorado legislature made farming on the Western Slope about as insecure as a farmer could tolerate, Harold says.
“It’s a whole different world than it was when we started,” Harold says “It’s not frustrating as much as the unknown. It’s hard to figure out what to do. Because of new labor laws we’re at a tipping point.”
In the meantime, as Harold sends this year’s crop to dinner tables across the U.S., he says water is already “of great concern next year.”
Factors like labor and inflation should work themselves out over time. Water though, is the real worry. As the water outlook in the West grows more grim, Harold says Tuxedo Corn Company will be ready to work through issues to fill in the supply gaps wherever they form.
“I’m a firm believer in climate change,” Harold says. “No hard feelings, but to those climate deniers, when they go hungry, maybe they’ll figure it out.”