Last sweet corn grower on Colorado's Front Range is calling it quits

Sakata Farms says labor shortage partly to blame

BRIGHTON, Colo. — You won't be able to fill your grocery cart with locally grown corn on the cob this coming summer.

The last of the large sweet corn growers on the Front Range has shucked its last ear.

"It was really a tough decision," said Robert Sakata, owner of Sakata Farms, an iconic small business in Brighton, just 10 miles north of Denver.

For 72 years – Sakata has been one of the premiere vegetable growers in Colorado.

"Sweet corn was our identity,” said Robert. “Everyone knew Sakata sweet corn."

They certainly did. Since the story aired on Denver7 earlier this week, it has been viewed more than 120,000 times on Facebook and shared more than 2,000 times.

“It’s a sad day,” said one of the online comments.

After decades of growing what was once marketed as Nature's Best, the Sakata's are calling it quits. They'll no longer grow corn and cabbage.

“It's really challenging, economically," said Robert.

He said it comes down to three things: tighter food safety regulations, encroaching growth/development and a dwindling number of seasonal migrant workers.

"A lot of times we were leaving crops in the field because we couldn't find enough people to harvest them," said Robert. “We were throwing away perfectly good produce.”

Robert says when he was growing up, on the same farm where his family’s main facility still sits, his high school friends all begged to work for the company. That was then, this is now.

“Now, you talk to high school kids and they say, ‘Oh sorry, I can't work on Wednesday because of soccer. I can’t work on Friday because of football and I definitely don’t want to work on weekends," Robert said.

It's also increasingly difficult with the Front Range population boom.

Sakata Farms used to be out in the middle of nowhere. Now, it’s surrounded by homes to the north, a Jack in the Box and Wal-Mart Supercenter to the west and a King Soopers and IHOP to the east.

A changing landscape that's changing farming in Colorado.

"It used to be out in the country, and I used to catch the bus to go to school," said Robert.

If the Sakata's sell their plant and the land it sits on just off Bromley Lane, they could market it - not by the acre or square foot, but by the square inch.

“It's got to be worth a fortune?” asked Denver7’s Russell Haythorn.

“I don't know how much it's worth,” Robert said. “It's worth a lot to me because this is where I grew up."

In terms of equipment, almost everything is for sale this coming Saturday. Kreps Wiedeman Auctioneers will host the farm auction.

"We built this. This is a sweet corn detasseler," said Robert – showing us some of their own inventive ways of harvesting.

"When I saw the (auction) brochure and Sakata Farms, I kind of got a big lump in my throat,” Robert said pausing. “It was like, 'Wow. It’s kind of a sad day.”

Even the de-husking and wrapping machine his dad designed is for sale, a piece of equipment worth about $100,000 dollars brand new.

"Dad was a pioneer and we did three full ears on a tray,” Robert said. “And then they would put the tray (in a wrapping machine)... and then it would be wrapped."

His dad, Bob, 92, still comes into the office every day.

"But I think he sees now, at least for this area - we can't keep operating like we have been," said Robert.

The Sakata's aren't leaving all together. They'll still grow onions and some grains.

"I hope people get an appreciation for the farmers that are remaining, and how difficult it is to grow in areas where there are so many people," said Robert.

The auction is this Saturday, March 10 at 9:30 a.m. It will be held at Sakata Farms at 384 E. Bromley Lane in Brighton.

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