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Sweet corn put Olathe on the map, but seeds of economic revival didn’t take

Olathe Sweet Corn Festival has moved to Montrose and the town still is wrestling with troubling changes back in the ‘80s that spurred grower John Harold to pitch ‘Olathe Sweet’ to the world.

A harvest crew with Tuxedo Corn Company picks the first ears of the company's Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn harvest from a field west of Pea Green, Colorado, Wednesday July 24, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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When giant, two-story machines called mule jacks lumbered into the corn fields around Olathe this week, it signaled that highly anticipated Western Slope sweet corn was about to hit grocery stores and grills — for the 33rd year running.

But change is afoot beyond the million-plus ears of tender, high-sugar corn that will be picked, packed and shipped around the country before the season ends in mid-September. It is rippling through the seemingly endless rows of stalks and down the sunbaked streets of the pint-sized farming town that has become synonymous with the famous corn. And change is rumbling into the wider world of sweet corn production.

A harvest crew with Tuxedo Corn Company gathers the first ears of the 2019 harvest. The hand-picked ears are placed in boxes carried by a massive machine known as a mule jack. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Corn fans can consider these transformations as they bite into juicy, first-of-the-season ears:

  • “Corn King” David Galinat, the corn geneticist who made Olathe sweet corn possible back in the early 1980s by developing corn strains with higher-than-normal sugar content, now lives in retirement in Eckert. He is focused on bird watching rather than on the mutations of ancient genes of a plant with the Latin name, Zea Mays. Galinat, 70, grew up immersed in corn research because his father was a world authority on historical corn. The late Dr. Walton C. Galinat was also a corn trickster who developed a variety of corn that grew to 2-feet long and a square cob that wouldn’t roll around on a plate. His son carried on by developing corn so sweet and tender it could be eaten straight from the cob. But, after a life centered on corn, David Galinat said he rarely eats it. His preferred vegetable is green beans.
  • Mesa Maize, the company that Galinat developed on the outskirts of Olathe in 1978 to produce and sell his sweet corn seed, is now owned by a seed conglomerate based in France. Galinat sold his company in 2010 to Harris Moran, one of the world’s largest seed companies. Harris Moran then became part of HM Clause, another of the world’s titans of global seed production. For local growers, that has meant seed costs have tripled. The big building now bearing the name HM Clause is still in their backyard. But they say it is tougher to discuss corn seed with a local representative.
  • The Olathe Sweet Corn Festival, which brought corn eating and shucking contests to Olathe for 27 years and once merited a Rand McNally listing as one of the top food events in the country, this summer is moving 11 miles down the highway to Montrose. The 28th festival, run by volunteers guided by the Montrose Community Foundation, will be held Aug. 3 inside the Montrose County Events Center. The new location will allow venue-wide alcohol consumption and more shade for corn fans while they get their all-you-can-eat fix of roasted and buttered ears. But this change of location has left many Olathe residents grumbling and many rumors whirling about possible mismanagement of corn festival proceeds when the event was under town control.
(Video by William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sweet corn has changed the flavor of town

Sweet corn put the town of Olathe on the national map. But that culinary cachet hasn’t translated to much in the way of economic development. 

Curious corn-loving travelers will occasionally wander around the ragged block that makes up the core of downtown in the “Hub of the Uncompahgre Valley.” They will find the B&C White Kitchen, the Jug liquor store, the Sudsy Pup dog grooming shop and Olathe True Value Hardware. 

Spanish-language signs offering money transfer services hang in storefronts in Olathe. The town of about 1,800 people now is about 58 percent Latino and Spanish is heard spoken on the streets almost as often as English. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

They will also find five Latino-owned businesses, including a bakery and a butcher shop and a slew of storefronts that advertise services to send money home to Mexico. Many of the agricultural workers who have come to Olathe over the decades to harvest sweet corn and other crops have settled down in Olathe. The population of 1,800 is now 58 percent Latino. Spanish is heard as often as English on the streets. This change is not universally popular in this conservative, Trump-voting area.

The demand for Olathe’s famous sweet corn is falling nationally. The “buy local” movement has cut into the demand for Olathe sweet corn. The corn is still shipped out to 30 states — from Anchorage to Roanoke. But, this year, acreage is being cut back as more consumers want to eat sweet corn grown close to home. Kroger and Walmart still buy more than 90 percent of the corn grown around Olathe, but both have cut back on their orders this year. 

Last year, some growers had to leave some sweet corn on the stalks because supply outstripped demand.

There is pressure nationally to toughen up sweet corn. Some growers are switching to varieties that can be harvested mechanically, and that means the kernels must have tough enough skins to withstand machine picking. 

Two major Olathe sweet corn producers are beginning to experiment with mechanically harvested varieties. But John Harold, the farmer who started all this back in 1987, when sugar beets and barley were tanking and farmers needed a lifeline, is continuing to hand harvest the tender varieties he trademarked as “Olathe Sweet” sweet corn. Pickers walk in front of the giant machines and toss ears up to others who pack the corn in boxes.

John Harold, the man who trademarked “Olathe Sweet” in 1987, talks with Juan Nava, a worker from Mexico, in the office of Tuxedo Corn Company in downtown Olathe. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Harold will be 79 next month. His daily uniform, made famous on grocery store posters, is still a button-down shirt under overalls — even when he is meeting governors and senators. He still zips around cornfields in a muddy pickup truck overseeing all aspects of the corn harvest, nowadays with the help of his son, David Harold.

On the hunt for new sources of sweet, sweet corn seed

From the modest Tuxedo Corn Company office in downtown Olathe, he does business on an old-fashioned cordless phone he keeps tucked in the breast pocket of his overalls. He has a Rolodex at the ready on his desk. Harold still sits under a large and elaborate wooden clock carved with “1st Annual Corn Festival.” Its hands stopped — he doesn’t know many years ago — at 10:29.

This year Harold and his growers expect to harvest nearly 28 million ears of sweet corn, down from about 33 million last year. Corn farmers faced challenges even before the harvest began. The cool and wet spring delayed the corn crop by two weeks. On the surface, that could simply mean that corn lovers get two more weeks at the other end to enjoy Olathe Sweet sweet corn.

A Tuxedo Corn harvest crew rushes just-picked ears to be boxed and shipped to markets across the U.S. Demand for “Olathe Sweet” is down though, due to buy-local campaigns that encourage consumers to purchase produce grown closer to home. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But Harold said it doesn’t work that way. The market for corn peaks with the outdoor grilling season and starts to taper when schools are back in session. That means there will be a wealth of sweet corn this year after the demand has fallen. The impact of that is yet to be seen.

While the harvest is underway, Harold will be jetting off to Florida, Idaho and Wisconsin — but not on vacation. He is looking at the future, which for a sweet-corn farmer like him, means having a ready supply of the seed that will produce the tender varieties consumers have come to expect. 

He said he can no longer count on conglomerate seed sellers like HM Clause to continue with tender varieties when mechanized harvesting is viewed as the future of sweet corn. Harold is not willing to make that change, so he is trying out the best corn he can find in other states to see if it will work around Olathe. He is also growing about a dozen varieties in test plots.

“They claim there is no monopoly on the seed, but they are full of crap,” Harold said in his typical mince-no-opinions way.

Corn growers have also been struggling once again to get enough workers, a process that has become more difficult and more expensive. The federal government has mandated that workers who come in on agricultural visas known as H2As, must be paid $13.13 an hour this year. On top of that, the growers who hire them must pay for their transportation from their homes in Mexico and for their housing. 

Harold said he spends about $45,000 in housing and transportation costs and $200 for each of his 145 workers in visa fees. This year he is housing his workers in a former juvenile detention center in Montrose.

Flyers describing social services for Spanish speaking and migrant families hang in a display case in downtown Olathe. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Over the years, Harold has tried hiring locals. That hasn’t gone well. The shortest time one of them lasted in the field doing the grueling work was 15 minutes. Most were gone within a week. One obese worker who couldn’t fit between the arms on the harvesting machine threatened to sue Tuxedo Corn for discrimination. Nine out of 10 of the sweet corn workers are now from Mexico. David Harold pointed out that some of the Mexican workers have been returning to the corn harvest for 25 years.

Brent Hines, who has been growing corn for Tuxedo since that first year, when the total harvest was about 62,000 ears, said despite all these pressures he is not tempted to switch crops. Hines, a fourth-generation Olathe-area farmer, grows about 300 acres of sweet corn that come with bragging rights.

“Hopefully the sweet corn thing will last a few more years,” he said. “I definitely think it is the best corn there is.”

While most Olathe sweet corn growers hang on to their famous crop, and maybe augment with hemp, there are portents in other areas. The last of the large Front Range sweet corn growers, Sakata Farms near Brighton, last year fell to pressures in that agricultural segment. Sakata called it quits when the farm was choked by urban growth and rocked by labor shortages.

Even though he is not in the corn business anymore, Galinat said he is not happy about the changes he sees in the sweet corn industry. He said the corn seed conglomerates are looking more to uniformity and to mechanical picking than to quality now – what he calls “an industrial view of sweet corn.” He said the conglomerates are “killing” the varieties of seed he developed and that became famous as Olathe Sweet. The company no longer produces a variety named “Jackie” after Galinat’s wife.

“They don’t particularly care if it tastes good or not,” he said. “I am kind of negative about it.”

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There still is magic in “Merlin”

Galinat’s seed is still used by Tuxedo Corn. And it is still possible to buy Galinat’s seed on Olathe’s Main Street. Behind the rusted and faded sign of Olathe True Value Hardware, in a 111-year-old building with sloping floors and an antique charm, there is a decades-old plastic bin filled with pink-tinted corn seed. It’s a variety Galinat called “Merlin.” Gardeners can buy it by the pound. 

Steve Gottlieb, owner of Olathe True Value Hardware, scoops pink-tinted “Merlin” sweet corn seeds from a bin in the store. He mails seeds to gardeners around the country. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Steve Gottlieb, who now runs the store that has been in his family for 40 years, said he mails seed around the country to gardeners who prefer Olathe sweet corn to anything else. Many came to a festival at some point and now crave the corn they ate in a place called Olathe.

“This corn has put our town on the map,” he said as he ran his fingers fondly through the kernels. “I travel all over officiating wrestling, and people, when they find out where I am from, say ‘Oh yeah, the place with the sweet corn.’”

The place with the sweet corn may be mythic in the memories of some sweet corn aficionados. But the town is not thriving. Mary’s shop on Main Street has party dresses in the window and a sign for notary services, but it was padlocked on a recent morning. A “Closed for Good” notice dangles from the door of Sheila’s Emporium. The curtains were drawn in what used to be a Mexican restaurant. 

Primitos Bakery, which has been doing business in Olathe for 16 years, is one of the busiest places with customers coming in for empanadas, donas and chivas. “Business is pretty good. This is a good place to live and do business,” said Valeria Rentera, one of the owners.

A sign describing a new, modern coworking space hangs in an empty storefront in downtown Olathe Friday July 19, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One storefront is vacant but has been spiffed up. A sign identifies it as the planned “Olathe Connection” — a coworking space. Across the street in a financial planning office, the woman mostly responsible for that sits behind a desk brightened with fresh flowers. When she isn’t doing finances, Lynette Rowland is the director of Make Olathe Better — MOB.

She is working on ways to do just what the name says with the help of a $1.5 million Colorado Trust grant. Besides the coworking project, she is also developing an interpretation and translation service, and organizing a harvest festival to be held Aug. 17 in downtown. 

She recognizes that some townspeople blame John Harold for tipping the racial scales in Olathe and changing the town in ways some don’t like. But she recognizes that many of Olathe’s woes have little to do with corn.

“Corn put our town on the map,” Rowland said. “But corn didn’t help our town all that much.”

Lynette Rowland speaks about the social and economic changes in Olathe. She leads MOB — Making Olathe Better — which is working to improve and diversify the local economy. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

She can tick off factors that did affect Olathe: It suffered in the 1970s and early ‘80s when U.S. 50 was routed around the town. Travelers who might have stopped before now whiz right on by, and Olathe was left with a lot of boarded-up structures. Sales taxes dropped so more streets and sidewalks and parks started to show wear and tear. Around the same time, the irrigation canals that had cut through Olathe were covered. Homeowners who had been using ditchwater to keep their lawns and flowers alive suddenly had to pay for city water. The lawns were left to die and weeds took over.

The town began to look dusty, rundown and uninviting.

Renters also began to outnumber homeowners. Many of the new renters were Mexicans who came to work the corn. Their family members began to open small businesses. Their children boosted the school population.

“This town would have been dead, I guarantee you, without sweet corn,” Harold said emphatically.

On a recent day, the bell on the door at Tuxedo jangles regularly as workers come to collect their paychecks. Harold teases them with the nicknames he has picked for each one. They leave with big smiles. 

The mule jack machine that carries boxes and workers makes its way through a field on the first day of the “Olathe Sweet” corn harvest west of Pea Green. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Outside Harold’s offices, there is little sign that this is a town made famous by sweet corn. To confirm that this is corn country, it is necessary to drive a ways into the countryside, where there are acres of bright green corn stalks spearing a blue, blue sky. Those fields herald the start of another Olathe sweet corn season — just as they have for 33 years. But with differences.

“The world has changed,” Harold said. “We haven’t changed.”   

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