By Caitlin Switzer
MONTROSE—As hungry shoppers across the nation clamor for more of John Harold’s Olathe Sweet sweet corn and Mike Ahlberg’s Mountain Fresh Sweet Corn (same sweet corn, different name), another local sweet corn variety is drawing even more worldwide attention to Colorado’s Western Slope.
“We’re doing major tests here in the valley,” said corn scientist Dave MacKenzie, who holds the patent on Mirai sweet corn, the popular “dessert corn” variety he originally developed in the early 1990’s at Twin Garden Farms in Harvard, Illinois. In the years since, Mirai has developed a global following, particularly in Japan, and is considered by many to be the finest quality sweet corn hybrid in the world.
“Our research is going crazy—we have definitely reached a new level of sweetness,” MacKenzie said in an interview last week. “Normal supermarket sweet corn averages about 14 percent sugar. Mirai is 18 percent sugar—and last week a tester hit 23 percent sugar.
“I am excited about taking it to the next level.” Although MacKenzie’s team has focused on growing Mirai locally for roadside stands in recent years, the strategy has changed.
“I am getting out of the fresh business, and focusing on getting Mirai into supermarkets,” MacKenzie said. “We are working on a relationship with a supermarket chain, and two farms in Denver and three here in the valley have expressed interest in growing Mirai.”
Mark Hayes of Twin Garden Farms, an agricultural sales professional who estimates that he moves roughly a million and a half crates of corn each year—“We are growing and harvesting corn somewhere 52 weeks a year,” Hayes says—notes that shoppers can now find the sought-after corn in Safeway Grocery stores in Arizona.
“They may not call it Mirai,” Hayes noted. “The stores give the corn their own names, and it is up to them to market it. But it is a success story, and it is available in chain stores. We are also shipping Mirai to Texas, for H.E. Butt Groceries.”
HEB Groceries is the largest privately held business in Texas, with more than 315 HEB stores as well as the upscale retailer Central market.
Mirai is currently not available in Colorado groceries, because of longstanding relationships those grocers have with other corn varieties, Hayes said. However, Coloradoans can take advantage of the ideal growing conditions—hot days combined with cool nights—to grow Mirai varieties in their home gardens.
Mirai, which must be picked by hand, is already sold in seed form in most U.S. states, MacKenzie said, and is very popular in Europe.
“It’s going like crazy in France, where they will be processing it in cans,” MacKenzie said. “They want high taste, and minimal added sugar. We’re seeing huge demand in other places overseas as well— for example, in the Ukraine. And Japan has immediately jumped on the next level of taste—they are calling our new, extra sweet variety “Dolce.”
The name Mirai means “taste of the future,” which is exactly what MacKenzie considers his corn to be.
“We are already seeing huge sales at roadside stands in the Eastern U.S.,” he said, but noted that Midwestern sweet corn sales have been heavily impacted by the drought of 2012.
“In Illinois, there is a 30 percent seed shortage because of the heat,” he said. “There are places where the field corn has just burned up.”
Here in Montrose, Mirai has established a following at some local eateries, and without a local growing operation MacKenzie has found creative ways to meet demand.
“Dan Blowers will be picking the corn from our research fields when it’s done, and delivering it,” MacKenzie said. “Chef Mike Krull over at the hospital put up 400 pounds of Mirai last year—he has told us he will take all the Mirai anybody can grow.
“We are getting at least three calls a day from people looking for Mirai.”