OLATHE — The sun’s first rays are spilling over Jumbo Mountain when the team clambers aboard the sprawling corn harvester.
John Harold joins the pickers as they twist his “Olathe Sweet” sweet corn from the stalks. It’s barely 6 a.m. and the first harvest of the season is underway for the nationally celebrated ears. It’s the happiest moment for Harold, who turns 80 a week from Sunday.
“The ground is a little hard,” he says. “Makes ‘em harder to snap.”
It hasn’t rained for two months. The Uncompahgre River Valley is exceptionally dry. A heat wave is pushing midday temps past 100. But Harold, who has been harvesting his famous corn for 34 years, is giddy. No rain means no mud, he says. He’s got almost 180 workers ready for a three-month parade of picking and packing. The warm weather, it turns out, makes for some juicy, sweet corn.
“Everything is early. Not just the corn, but the onions, the hay is early, too,” he says, his head down as he nimbly squeaks ear from stalk and tosses them into a truck bed. “It’s not just super warm days. You gotta understand that because of the warm nights the crop is growing more nights than normal. We are getting 24 hours a day worth of growth.”
Everything is good news for Harold, who sells his entire harvest — more than 700,000 containers this year, roughly 33.6 million ears — to the 2,757-store Kroger Co., the parent to King Soopers and City Market stores. And this pandemic-addled season, as more folks are eschewing restaurants and eating at home, Kroger upped its annual order by 80,000 containers, or nearly 4 million ears.
“This will be a big year,” Harold says, swatting swarming gnats as the worker-laden harvester growls through freshly sheared stalks. “They didn’t say why, but my guess is the pandemic has increased business at the grocery stores. Not to brag, but it’s a fact that our corn brings people to their stores and they made a conscious decision last fall they were going to feature our corn in more stores.”
The grocery chain is doing well in the pandemic as people stay close to home. Kroger last month reported a 19% increase in sales in its first fiscal quarter of 2020, which ended in the last week of May. Total sales for the quarter were $42 billion and Kroger posted an operating profit of $1.3 billion for the quarter, up from $903 million in 2019.
Harold, who, along with his son David, runs the Tuxedo Corn company he founded in Olathe in 1986 — is no stranger to the challenges of farming. This year, the pandemic added a new layer to his typical fretting over labor, weather and water. Closed borders with Mexico threatened to disrupt the flow of workers Tuxedo needs in July, August and September as they harvest not just corn, but sweet onions and dry beans.
The initial crush of the pandemic in March and April delayed processing of his H-2A visas for the early wave of workers who help prepare his fields for planting. The delays lingered as Harold ramped up his visa-worker count, which reached full-staff of 180 just days before the first harvest last week. Soon, he will have three harvest crews working the fields around Olathe.
The Trump Administration’s crackdown on visa workers — largely H-2B and J-1 seasonal employees — as well as the president’s divisive rhetoric on immigration has further challenged Harold’s ability to get his workers from Mexico to field.
“It’s a pain in the ass to work under him because he’s just so erratic,” says Harold, who welcomed his last wave of 85 workers last week. “But we’ve got everyone here now. H-2As seem to have escaped the wrath of Trump because he understands that civilizations fall when people get hungry. Well somebody around him knows that at least.”
Harold bought seven extra 15-passenger vans to shuttle workers between their housing and the fields, with only seven workers riding in each to maintain distance. They are required to wear masks inside vehicles. He takes their temperatures every morning and evening. Harold has what he called “a safe house” in case someone falls ill. He’s hired a cook to feed his crews so they don’t have to cook for themselves or venture into town to shop or eat. He bought a semi-trailer of water bottles so they don’t have to share a cooler on the harvester. He’s got cleaning crews sanitizing his warehouse twice a day.
“We are making every effort I know how to keep them safe because it’s a real concern of mine,” he says. “My cleaning costs have gone up about 1,000%.”
Many of his workers have been coming to pick his corn in the Uncompahgre River Valley for years. Harold knows just about every one of them by name. They step up their hustle when he joins them in the picking line. Early Monday, many of the workers embraced like family as they clambered aboard the harvester.
And about those harvesters. It was more than 20 years ago when Harold was visiting corn farms in Florida when he was forced to pull off the road during a violent rainstorm. When the rain stopped, he realized he was parked in front of a welding shop that made custom harvest machines capable of trawling through 14 rows of corn stalks at a time. Now he has four of the unique contraptions, known as mule trains.
With wings spanning 43 feet, the mule train is built atop a five-ton, 6×6 military truck. About 24 pickers work around the vehicle, squeakily yanking ears from stalks and tossing them to another two dozen packers who pile the corn into containers. There’s Wi-Fi onboard, giving up-to-the-second locations for each box of corn that is packed.
Heavy trucks roll over freshly de-eared corn stalks to supply the mule train with empty pallets and boxes. It takes about 30 minutes for those trucks to roll back onto pavement with 420 containers heavy with sweet corn, bound for ice in the nearby warehouse. The couple-minute transition between full and empty trucks is a brief respite for workers in their daylong frenzy of ear-snapping and packing.
Volunteers with the Sharing Ministries Food Bank were on hand Monday to collect a load of Harold’s sweet corn. The food bank will spin a lap through a lane of Harold’s corn every morning for the next six weeks, gathering critical fuel for a key food bank fundraiser. They sell the ears for $4 a dozen from a parking lot on the edge of Montrose.
“We will sell out of all this by noon,” says Bradley Adams, riding shotgun as a team of pickers toss ears in the bed of his pickup. “This is our biggest fundraiser of the year. Everyone is waiting for this corn.”