Got corn? Olathe all ears on word of record harvest

A harvest crew works through acres of sweet corn near Olathe. According to the Tuxedo Corn Co., this year’s crop is expected to be the largest ever. The company employs 130 workers to staff three crews. Of those workers, 80 are foreigners on the visa program and 50 are locals.

OLATHE—It’s about 5:30 in the morning, and a caravan of headlights drives over the broken asphalt of Colorado Highway 348 a few miles west of Olathe. The cars turn down a dusty road and park next to a corn field emerging from darkness. Wondrous streaks of red and yellow sunlight begin to fill the sky as a pair of work crews prepare for another hot day.

A gentle breeze competes with the chatter of one harvest crew as it begins to pick the first loads of this year’s crop of what’s known as Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn. And this year is set to be its largest harvest ever.

Footsteps of mostly migrant workers, a small Ford gasoline engine and native Spanish can be heard over acres of corn that have taken a season to perfect. The workers’ pants become stained from morning dew, and the earth is soft beneath their feet as they labor to clear the 15 to 18 acres expected of them each day.

This year’s crop, according to Tuxedo Corn Co. owner John Harold, is estimated to top 600,000 boxes of corn, each box containing 48 ears, which amounts to roughly 28 million ears.

Harold said this is a 12 percent increase in demand over last year from Tuxedo’s contract with nationwide grocery retailer The Kroger Co., resulting in 67,000 more boxes.

Tuxedo had to plant an additional 200 acres to meet Kroger’s request.

“They wanted more because we have good corn and were capable of growing and harvesting more,” Tuxedo Corn grower Kyle Martinez said.

To Harold, it’s serious business. With a set price per box from Kroger, he needs to deliver the corn fast and in good quality.

The growing conditions in the Olathe area and his reliable work force make that possible.

“Without the bright sunny days and cool nights, we would be just another corn producer. We live in a good part of the world that is very advantageous to what we do and the crops we grow,” Harold said.

Shuck an ear with morning dew still attached, and you’ll find rows of bi-color corn ready to eat. A flood of sweet sugar water releases from the kernels with the first bite.

“The temperature swing between the 100-degree days and mid-60s in the evening is a great reason we have the flavor in the corn,” Harold said.

Aside from the occasional raccoon infestation or lack of water in various fields, Harold said one of his biggest problems has been labor.

Each year his company hires migrant workers from Mexico on the federal H-2A visa program. Many come to these familiar fields year after year.

They work long days to provide sweet corn for America’s dinner tables, and their wages help them provide sustenance for their families back in Mexico.

Without them, the corn would wither in the heat and rot.

Some have been harvesting sweet corn in the Olathe area for more than 20 years. However, in a down economy, Harold has seen an increase in local applications.

“We have more local labor because of the economy than we’ve had in the past five or six years, so that’s taken some of the pressure off, and we did not use all of our visas this year because of the amount of local labor,” Harold said.

This year Tuxedo secured 80 foreign workers on the visa program and 50 workers from the local work force, an increase over previous years.

The 130 workers staff three harvesting crews, which includes support staff, truck drivers and pickers.

Twenty-five years ago when Harold said there wasn’t any migrant labor, mostly local high school kids were taking on the summer corn harvest.

Those kids are gone, and a younger generation has surrendered the work in exchange for other, easier summer jobs. Harold laments that many don’t want the work because, as he puts it, “Six in the morning is awful early to some people.”

“It surprises me. Many segments of our country hasn’t lost its work ethic, though,” he added.

A controversial immigration law set to take effect in Arizona this month has sparked a national debate about immigration reform. One of the topics has been the H-2A program and its sustainability as a social program as high unemployment continues across the country.

Harold doesn’t see the federal program going anywhere soon, but that doesn’t matter to him now; his workers have corn to move and idle trucks are waiting.

Harold’s corn is shipped all over the country, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Roanoke, Va., and all points in between.

This year, the company has introduced new technology to help the company reach its harvesting goal.

New electronic touch pads can be used in the field to update systems tracking where trucks are going and how much has been harvested that day.

“There’s a lot more to what we do than just picking corn,” Martinez said.

With a strong labor force and a product that sells itself, Tuxedo Corn Co. is continuing the sweetest of traditions in Olathe.

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