Lend Us Your Ears

Want to know what makes Olathe Sweet Corn so special? Ask a farmer who grows it.

Photo by Jeff Nelson.

What makes Olathe (pronounced oh-LAY-thuh) corn so tasty that King Soopers takes out radio ads announcing its arrival in the produce aisles and Delta County hosts an Olathe Sweet Corn Festival every August? Just ask John Harold, owner of the Tuxedo Corn Co. He’s been growing Olathe corn since a farmer named Dave Galinat developed it in the 1980s, and in 1987 he trademarked the name “Olathe Sweet” Sweet Corn.

How did the crazy spring affect the harvest? When will we be able to get corn?

Harold: Around the 24th of July. It’ll be two weeks later than last year. The moisture was welcome, but it came at inopportune times, and the cool weather slowed everything down. It’s 180 degrees from last year, when we had no moisture. If you put the two together, we had two perfect years. But Mother Nature doesn’t work that way. I don’t think it will affect the flavor, but we won’t have the volume we had last year. Last year we planted 1,800 acres and this year we’re right around 1,600.

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Is that going to affect the price?

Harold: Our corn is all hand-picked, so we bring a lot of labor on the H-2A program out of Mexico. We have for 25 years. This year the wage rate, which is set by the federal government, is $13.13, which is 22.8 percent higher than it was last year. We were thinking, since we’re going to grow less corn, maybe we could use less labor. But out of the 150 people that came last year, every one of them wants to come back. These people are good workers, and they’re happy to make a substantial amount of money and go home. But box costs went up, pallet costs went up, and we’re going to raise our prices 6 to 7 percent. What the supermarkets are going to sell it for, I don’t know.

Photo by Jeff Nelson.

What would you do without migrant labor?

Harold: We’d go out of business, no question about it. It’s not that people are lazy where I live. There’s full employment. We don’t have any choice but to bring in migrant labor.

We can only get this corn for about six weeks every year. Why won’t it grow in other places?

Harold: We’ve tried in Mexico, where my son has a farm, and in the Southeast, but we haven’t been successful. I think the temperature swing isn’t big enough. It loves the warm days and cool nights, about a 35-degree swing in summer from the heat of the day to the cool of the night. That, along with the sunshine, is what brings the flavor.

Photo by Jeff Nelson.

What do you see in the future for Olathe corn?

Harold: I think our corn has changed the industry, but the big problem is labor. This has been the most difficult year I’ve ever had with the H-2A program. We applied with a May 6 date of need and didn’t have labor until the 29th of June. Most growers are trying to find a variety of corn that’s tough enough to pick mechanically.

How do you describe Olathe corn to someone who’s never had it?

Harold: I give a couple of illustrations. If they wear glasses and the corn pops, they get a little juice on their glasses because the corn is that tender. Also, it’s got a corn flavor and a sweetness to it. I go to corn trials and people ask me to taste their corn, and I tell them that people can buy sugar cane and get the sweetness, but what you’re looking for is corn flavor as well. We always have a good time arguing back and forth.