A delicious, delicate morning light had just started to illuminate a cornfield as vans pulled up alongside it. Dozens of seasonal workers got out in sun hats and baseball caps, cell phones and water bottles in their back pockets.
Later that same day, a beloved summer staple would return to grocery store shelves: Olathe sweet corn, named for the nearby Western Slope town that’s been synonymous with the crop for decades.
But first the corn needed to be harvested — by hand. A line of men marched into the muddy field and each swiftly pulled the corn off their stalks and tossed them into metal troughs that spread out like wings from either side of a flatbed trailer.
Above the troughs, others sorted the corn into plastic baskets and pushed them down a conveyor belt, where more people stacked them up.
Pick … throw … sort … stack. The process was mesmerizing and relentless.
There are various sweet corn producers, but this is the one that sparked the whole Olathe sweet corn mystique: the Tuxedo Corn Company.
“We’re the first, the original, the biggest, and I’d like to think, the best,” said David Harold, watching the harvest intently.
His dad, John, started the company in the 1980s, back when this rural community was in dire need of an economic boost. Farmers stopped growing sugar beets here, and Coors was no longer buying Olathe malted barley. With its hot days and cool nights, the area turned out to be just right for a newly developed type of corn with a higher-than-normal sugar content. It’s also more tender than your average kernel.
“We’ve got something special. It’s not just sweet corn,” Harold said.
Their corn is even trademarked with the brand name Olathe Sweet. People have loved it for a long time, he went on, even before it became known across the state and country. He remembers driving into nearby Montrose with his dad, ready to sell to people out of the back of their pickup.
“There’d be a line when we got there and, you know, it was a big mad rush,” Harold said.
Those days are far in the rear view, with buyers now all over Colorado and dozens of states — even Canada. Harold estimates that on some busy days, crews have picked a million ears. And for all of them, a careful protocol must be followed: The corn is rushed out of the field, cooled, packed in ice slush, then spirited off to stores.
All of this, Harold explained, helps lock in that sweet freshness people wait all year for, so that when they bite in, “it's as close to possible as if you were eating it raw in the field.”
That’s how he likes it by the way, though roasting it on the harvester’s muffler is pretty good, too.
While some ears of Olathe Sweet sweet corn travel far from their namesake, others only make it a few miles down the road. Gary Espinoza was slowly driving his Ford down the rows, as one of his employees tossed his bed full of corn, all headed to his Big E Market in nearby Eckert.
Some customers had already been asking about corn’s arrival for months.
“And they know when that truck's back in there and the mud’s dripping off the truck, they know that it's sweet corn harvest time,” Espinoza said, with a laugh.
As he sees it, it’s the official start of summer.
Around here, this crop is also much more than a seasonal treat. It’s a real point of pride.
If it weren’t for the corn company, “you’d just drive by” Olathe, explained grower Kathy English.
She then did a spirited interpretation of a typical Olathe resident.
“We grow the best!” she said, her voice high and excited. “That’s what they always say.”
The day’s harvest was actually on her land. She and her husband, Bill, started producing Olathe Sweet sweet corn for the Harold family decades ago. Now in her 70s, she’s slowed down that work quite a bit but is optimistic for the corn’s future.
She calls Harold “probably one of the nicest young men you'll ever meet,” and smiled as she watched his two sons — ages 2 and 4 — play on their dad’s pickup.
“This is what this is all about, right here, because here’s your future growers,” she said.
That’s only if they want that, Harold later told me, though his 4-year-old Luca was quite the salesman. He asked me to help him shuck an ear, which of course I did. When those pale yellow jewels of corn were revealed, he egged me on.
“Try it,” he said, in his little kid voice.
It was sweet and earthy and instantly addictive, my first taste ever of this famous corn.
“Now you know about corn,” he said, as we walked into the rows upon rows of Olathe Sweet sweet corn.
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