OLATHE — On Monday, shortly before 6 a.m., the lights come on in a farmhouse in the Pea Green area west of Olathe. Minutes later, migrant workers from Mexico start arriving, delivering friendly waves as they gather near a field of sweet corn, the cool air yielding to the growing sunlight.
The workers, nearly three-dozen in this crew, begin their day pulling the first ears of this season’s Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn from moist farmland. They are eager and happy. In the distance, a crop duster from the Olathe Spray Service can be heard buzzing over fields.
About 20 workers pick the corn and toss the ears into a large mechanical harvester, while maybe a dozen more workers pack the corn into boxes and slide them down a conveyor towards a delivery truck. On their first pass through the field, located near the intersection of Carnation Road and Colorado Highway 348, the workers appear a bit rusty, but on the second pass they hit their stride, cracking jokes and working swiftly.
These migrant (or guest) workers are, in the eyes of Olathe farmer John Harold, the most important component of the process that delivers the Olathe Sweet brand of sweet corn across the U.S.
Harold, the founder of the Tuxedo Corn Company, has been growing the Olathe Sweet Sweet brand for decades, and he says the goal this season is to harvest 620,000 boxes of corn. With 48 ears per box, that total is about 29,760,000 ears of corn being shipped to markets from Alaska to Virginia by way of Kroger.
The projected total is down from 650,000 boxes last year, or 31,200,000 ears.
Harold says his company applied for 100 H-2A visas for the migrant workers this year, and was granted 95; he was able to recruit maybe 30 local laborers to join the migrant workers.
Years ago local teenagers would work to harvest the corn, but now he depends on the migrant workers more than ever. “It’s hard work, not everybody wants to do it,” he said, adding that some local workers quit after one day, and others have quit after just 15 minutes. “I can see five on this crew that ain’t gonna to make it,” Harold said Monday morning,observing a crew working in a field near 5400 road. “Hell, its only been five hours.”
Some of the workers Harold employs have made the trip from Mexico to Olathe to harvest sweet corn and onions for decades; he aggressively advertises for local labor each year, but is dependent on foreign workers to meet his produce contracts.
“When they say they’re going to town to get lunch, you know damn well they ain’t coming back,” he said of the local workers.
Tuxedo Corn planted about 1,600 acres of corn this year. Due to weather this year’s crop is about five days later than last season.
The Olathe Sweet Corn Festival is slated for Saturday, Aug. 2; for more information, visit www.olathesweetcornfest.com.