No More Corn?

By: Tim Ciesco Email
By: Tim Ciesco Email

Most Western Slope residents would tell you it's impossible to say Olathe without thinking sweet corn. But now a worker housing shortage is threatening to shut down the industry once and for all.

"Olathe and sweet corn, they're both synonymous," said Montrose County Commissioner Gary Ellis. "You don't really say one without saying the other."

For as long as most people in Western Colorado can remember, that's how it's always been. Growers say the famous corn brings in about $11 million annually to the Olathe area.

"In the bad years when we've sold corn and other commodities at a loss, sweet corn is something that's kept us afloat," said John Harold, owner of Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn.

But now growers are saying even that industry is on the verge of sinking. Harold says he and the two other primary growers need about 280 workers each season to plant and harvest the corn. The majority of those farm hands are temporary, foreign workers.

In order for those workers to receive a visa, the growers are required to find them housing. Growers say it's a problem for them, because they can't find places to hold that many people for only a seven week period.

But it could be an even bigger problem for sweet corn lovers. If there's no housing, there's no workers. If there's no workers, there's no corn.

"It would be a terrible loss as far as I'm concerned," said Harold. "It would be a travesty if we can't get this situated."

The growers say there is still hope. There is a dorm in Olathe which was specifically built to house farm workers. It can house 72 people, and is just minutes from most of the major farms in the area. But growers still have one obstacle to overcome.

"This was built with taxpayer money and designed to be used for a specific purpose -- a purpose our community still has need for," said Noelle Hagan, a member of the Montrose Housing Authority Board, which owns and operates the dorm. "But we can't do it."

Because of a law passed by Congress in 1949, only U.S. citizens and permanent workers can live there. For that reason the dorm stays empty most of the year. Now growers and local authorities are hoping they can convince the feds to add temporary workers to that list.

If this push fails, growers say they will be left with little choice but to cancel the sweet corn crop.

"My guess is if that happens, then it's done," said Harold. "If we don't do this, we're going to have a problem, and I don't see us coming back to say we didn't do it last year, we'll do it next year."

If there's no sweet corn, Montrose County officials say there would be no sweet corn festival, a major economic event for the county.

"If you don't have the product to celebrate, what's the reason to celebrate then," said Ellis.

Growers and authorities are working closely with the offices of U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, Senator Wayne Allard, and Representative John Salazar to get things taken care of quickly.

However, there isn't much time for them to make that decision. Harold says that Kroger is asking the three growers to sign contracts which would allow the corporation to sell the corn in the stores. Growers say that gives the federal government about 40 days to decide whether they can plant their fields, or whether the signs that read Olathe sweet corn will become a thing of the past.

Senator Salazar's office tells 11 News he is waiting to gage the community's reaction to this issue before he makes any decision to move forward with legislation.


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