Lyle Rose, who farms about 15 acres southeast of East Grand Forks, has built a reputation for corn on the cob for which people are willing to wait.
Every summer about this time, customers at the East Grand Forks Hugo’s store ask for Lyle Rose’s corn by name, said Rick Hogan, recently retired director of produce education for the Hugo’s grocery store chain.
“We put product out and people would ask, ‘Is this Lyle Rose’s corn?’ ” said Hogan, who worked for Hugo’s for almost 46 years. “Many people wouldn’t even buy corn until Lyle’s was ready. That’s loyalty at its best.”
The mutually beneficial relationship between Hugo’s and Rose goes back quite a few years -- for good reason.
“He wouldn’t sell to us anything until it was the highest quality,” Hogan said.
Earlier this week, Rose was loading bags of corn earmarked for the 32nd Avenue South in Grand Forks and the East Grand Forks locations, but he supplies corn for all Hugo’s stores in both cities.
Rose’s corn is also in demand for corn feeds, which double as fundraisers, including the events held regularly at the American Legion, VFW, Eagles and Sons of Norway.
“And we just finished up with a corn feed put on by the Lions at Alvarado -- that’s their big fundraiser for the year,” he said.
Rose grows 12 varieties of corn.
“We’re finishing up on two varieties right now,” he said, surveying his crop. “Every three days we switch variety. Each variety has a different day-length when they mature.”
He’s found that early-maturing varieties “are not good,” he said.
As one who sells wholesale to stores, Rose said: “The easiest thing is to grow it; the hardest thing is to sell it.”
Even so, he’s built a lasting relationship with Hugo’s that’s based on his ability to provide “consistent quality and supply (corn) for a long time,” he said.
He relies on a cadre of high school- and college-age students to hand-pick and sort corn.
“I always tell them, ‘Don’t ever put a cob in the bag that you wouldn’t buy yourself.’ ”
Rose, who this year started the corn-picking operation on Aug. 5, said he gives the stores two or three days’ notice “so they can clear out shipped-in corn,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is sell them corn that’s not ready.”
He teaches his young co-workers, including two grandsons, to “grab the ear at the end, that’s how you can tell if the corn is ready to pick,” he said. “Or take a bite out of it; if it’s not sweet, we don’t pick it."
He complimented his helpers on their tenacity and reliability, he said.
“If they can’t make it, they find a replacement," he said.
The decision to pick or not is made daily.
“If we can get a tractor through the mud, we’re going to pick,” Rose said. “And it doesn’t faze them that it’s muddy out there.”
Years of experience
Rose, who grew up on a farm near Underwood, Minn., has been growing corn here since 1976, when he bought the 15-acre farm southeast of East Grand Forks.
“Once you’ve got dirt in your fingernails, it kind of grows on you,” he said. His corn production “helps to justify buying a few tractors.”
Rose started out supplying corn to Miller’s grocery store and later Albertson’s supermarket, both were fixtures in Grand Forks.
“I stayed with one store until I retired,” he said. That was in East Grand Forks.
Until retirement from teaching at Central Valley School at Buxton, N.D., he balanced the demands of teaching with growing corn for wholesale.
“I always took care of the Hugo’s store in East Grand Forks,” he said, and over time he eventually added all the Hugo’s stores in the Grand Cities.
Each day, Rose calls the stores “right away in the morning, so they all have fresh corn -- and don’t get more than they can sell for the day. This way they’re selling fresh corn.”
Those calls also help him decide how many workers he needs, “and who can sleep in,” he said.
Rose is rightfully proud of the corn he delivers to Hugo’s because it’s fresh out of the field.
Picking usually starts at 6:30 a.m.
“We like to be done picking by 8 a.m.,” he said. “Corn in the morning has the highest sugar content.”
As the day goes on and sunlight gets stronger, “the corn starts going back to starch,” he said.
Freshness is key.
The corn that’s shipped to grocery stores “may be as old as two weeks -- it has to be picked, delivered to the warehouse” and transported, all of which takes time, he said. “Or the store may order too much.”
The Hugo’s stores’ demand for quality and consistency extends beyond corn. Rose also supplies a couple varieties of pumpkins.
“We wash them before they go to the stores,” he said. “All the pumpkins in Hugo’s stores are ours.”
He’s also supplied onions, he said.
“We grow Walla Wallas and candy onions," said Rose, who also grows other vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, and his grandson is growing potatoes, as his own project.
“I don’t like picking potatoes,” Rose said. “I don’t like picking tomatoes or cukes.”
He generally leaves those to people who do.
Choosing his path
After high school, Rose went to work for a concrete block manufacturer. One day, while unloading blocks outside a school in harsh winter weather, he caught a glimpse inside and told a coworker: “I’m going to be in that classroom.”
He headed first to the community college at Fergus Falls, Minn., and later to NDSU where he earned a degree in agriculture education and composite science in 1969. Rose taught agriculture classes at Central Valley until his retirement.
“I was going to stay for one year, and I ended up staying for 35,” said Rose who still has fond memories of the school. “There are good people there, good families. A lot of those families still buy corn from us. And their kids come up here to work.”
Hogan praised Rose for being “a good mentor for schools and kids around here,” and providing jobs for kids.
‘The most fun’
“I’ve learned so much from Hugo’s stores, especially from Rick Hogan,” Rose said. “He’s a wealth of information.”
Rose particularly enjoyed learning about other aspects of the grocery business.
“The most fun is being able to go into the stores and see the other side of the world, and what the store has to go through,” he said, “and the marketing the store has to go through.”
The Hugo’s grocery chain “has been so good to us,” Rose said. “If we’re long on product, they (find another store); like last year, I sold to Park Rapids.”
Rose expects to wrap up this year’s corn harvest the first week in September.
“We’ve gone on later in September, but it’s not easy once kids have gone back to school," said Rose, adding that this has been a good year for corn. “We’ve been so lucky; we’ve had so many timely rains. We’re in one of the better positions in the state.”