Warm days and cool nights. Apparently, it's just what the farmer ordered.
Western Colorado's climate, including the big 40-degree plunge from high daytime to cool nighttime temperatures, contributes to Olathe sweet corn's signature flavor, said Mountain Fresh Corn owner and third-generation farmer Mike Ahlberg.
“The differential of 40 degree daytime to night time temperatures raises the sugar content,” Ahlberg said last weekend, as he and a 50-person crew prepared to harvest bi-color Luscious, a yellow-and-white-kerneled local favorite.
But is it the right climate, or is it just good science?
“It's good cross-breeding,” said John Harold, owner of Tuxedo Corn Co. in Olathe. “Corn is bred just like cows.”
Whether it's cool night temperatures or good seed that accounts for Olathe corn's reputation for flavor and tenderness depends on whom you ask, but one thing seems clear – Durango locals eagerly await the annual arrival of Olathe sweet corn to area grocery stores and farm stands. The celebration typically peaks the first week of August.
David Galinat, a scientist who founded the Olathe seed development company Mesa Maize, gets the credit for hybridizing the sweet corn seed that pulled Olathe farmers out of dire economic straits in the 1980s, when consumer demand and prices for beets, barley and other western Colorado crops plummeted nationwide.
Galinat's seed proved to be a life line for Olathe's farmers, and the tiny farm community was revived. In just a few short years, the town's name became synonymous with sweet corn, just as consumers pair Idaho with potatoes and Florida with oranges.
In April 2010, Mesa Maize was acquired by Harris Moran, the largest independently owned seed company in the world. A press release announcing the acquisition described Mesa Maize as “the industry leader in the development of high-quality, homozygous sugary enhanced sweet corn hybrids with characteristic excellent eating and long holding ability.”
According to Galinat, there are a half dozen different genetic classes of sweet corn on the market today. “The consumer almost has no handle on telling these apart and knowing what they're buying, Galinat said. “All of them have a sugary enhancer gene in them. These are grown in Delta County, Montrose and Olathe.”
Galinat, who developed almost all the sweet corn varieties grown in Olathe, acknowledges that western Colorado night temperatures are a factor, but he says it's minor. He cites other areas of the continent, namely parts of New England and southeastern Canada, that successfully grow sweet corn.
As for Olathe's sweet corn, three major producers – Mountain Fresh, Tuxedo Corn and Mountain Quality Corn – ship yellow, white and bi-color varieties all over the United States. Each year, approximately 57 million ears of corn are grown on 3,000 acres in and around Olathe, Ahlberg estimates, adding that this year's yield will be good because of recent warm weather, despite a later-than-usual spring planting date.
Ahlberg has been raising corn for Mountain Fresh for more than a decade. Before dedicating acreage to sweet corn, Ahlberg's father and grandfather raised mostly kabocha squash for export to Japan. He and his two sons currently raise hay and onions in addition to corn.
Raising corn presents challenges, Ahlberg said, including labor issues that make it difficult and sometimes costly to employ a crew to hand-pick for long hours during peak season, but Ahlberg says he's maintained his same crew for the last five years.
Ahlberg's day begins at 4 a.m., when he drives a bus to pick up workers from the housing he provides to his 40-person seasonal harvest team. Harvesting begins when the sun comes up.
“It takes 50 to run the harvester, with 20 picking, 13 packaging, three assembling packing boxes and one machine driver,” Ahlberg said. “Four guys load and stack on the truck and five pushers get (the corn) to the center.”
The winged harvester moves efficiently through 20 rows of corn at a time. Trucks carry packed boxes to a refrigeration area where pallets of corn are inspected by a USDA inspector before being slush-iced. Pre-cooling the corn and the rapid removal of field heat within minutes of harvest are critical to maintain sweetness. Finally, the corn is transported at 30.5 degrees Fahrenheit in refrigerated trucks to retard the conversion of sugar to starch.
John Harold, who trademarked the term Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn in 1987, says his farm, Tuxedo Corn Co., churns out the lion's share of Olathe's crop that's shipped to grocery stores from Virginia to Alaska. Harold, a former mayor of the small farming community, deserves credit for introducing Olathe's Sweet Corn Festival, now in its 20th year.
Bobbi Sale, special events coordinator for the town's annual party that pairs concerts with corn, says this year's event, which will be held this Friday and Saturday, has grown by leaps and bounds. “People love corn and concerts,” Sale said, “so that's what we offer them.” Sale said she expects a crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 at the festival, which features musical performances on both days.
Classic rock band The Guess Who will perform Friday, and country music legend Aaron Tippin will perform Saturday. Food concessions, a classic car show, contests and games round out the festival, a fundraiser for Olathe's nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity and local school sports programs.
“Corn is the star of the show,” Sale said. “You can walk up and get as much free corn as you want, included in the $19 (adult) ticket price.” Children pay $4 for the two-day admission.
Sale described how ears of sweet corn will be fed onto a conveyor belt and into the roaster, emerging in two to three minutes. Festivalgoers then take the treats into the “butter tent,” where volunteers dip the roasted corn in butter, salt and pepper.
Sale estimated the crowd will go through 70,000 ears – all donated by Tuxedo Corn Co. – and 500 pounds of butter at this weekend's festival, which is sponsored by Alpine Bank.