Most of the apricots in the Grand Valley were wiped out by last night's heavy frost. Let's hope the peaches make it. – Western Colorado Fruit Growers Association Facebook post, March 29, 2011, at 9:22 p.m.
WESTERN SLOPE – Like petite billboards announcing a coming attraction, signs pepper the roadside in the Western Slope’s North Fork Valley. Some are hand-painted and weathered, others are glossy and elaborate, but all advertise the area’s prized assets: Cherries! Apricots! Apples! Pears!
Yet a visit to some of the local fruit stands here reveals the region’s fruit baskets aren’t exactly brimming this summer.
“We lost all the apricots, all the cherries,” said Shawn Larson, sounding resigned. The otherwise upbeat general manager at Delicious Orchards, just off Highway 133 near Paonia, he’s talking about the unseasonably cold temperatures early this spring that obliterated the orchard’s apricot and cherry crop. Two years ago, he said, the orchard generated 20,000 pounds of cherries. This summer, there was barely a pound of saleable cherries, and nary an apricot to be found amid Delicious Orchard’s 16 acres.
Delicious Orchard’s loss isn’t unique in the region, where an exceptionally cold winter followed by a chaotic spring found growers fighting a losing battle to save some of their vulnerable fruit crops from the elements. The U.S. Department of Agriculture took note last week, designating Delta, Mesa and Montrose counties as primary natural disaster areas due to the crop losses caused by freezing temperatures at the end of April and beginning of May.
But this month's announcement that qualified farm operators in the designated areas will be eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency doesn’t much help farmers here, many of whom lost large percentages of their fruit crops on account of a bitter cold winter and late spring frosts last season as well.
The towering hulk of Grand Mesa separates the verdant North Fork valley, draped in a network of orchards and farmland, from another of Colorado’s agricultural sweet spots. Palisade, home of the famous Palisade peach, is one of the country’s most prized producers of stone fruit, in addition to being the unofficial nucleus of Colorado Wine Country.
Growers here have long touted the region’s unique microclimate, which generates the cool mountain air at night and the intense high-altitude sun during the day that causes fruit to ripen slowly, prompting sugars to condense and making for idyllic conditions for producing sweet-tasting fruit. Yet growing in these often extreme conditions sometimes comes at a price. Fruit growers in the North Fork and Grand Valleys are acutely feeling the cost of farming at altitude this growing season, with many reporting 80-100 percent loss of their early stone fruit crops.
“It was like a battlefield,” recalled Jessica Eckhoff, a farmer at Rancho Durazno in Palisade, of the series of nights in late April and early May when temperatures dropped to well below freezing. As she explains, fruit farmers throughout the Grand Valley fire up giant fans throughout orchards there when temperatures begin to dip into the danger zone, a move that helps keep the cold air from sinking into the valley floor and damaging vulnerable fruit blossoms. Last spring’s late cold snap also elicited farmers’ use of blowtorches in conjunction with the fans throughout valley orchards, in an attempt to raise air temperatures.
The effort was mostly for naught, however, with Rancho Durazno losing 80 percent of its apricot crop. Losses were worse for growers in other areas, said Rancho Durazno’s Ben Hill, explaining that some of their apricots survived thanks to Rancho Durazno’s location near the heat-generating rock cliffs of Grand Mesa. “We’re just lucky that the heat coming off the Mesa kept us three degrees warmer,” Hill said.
Wayne Talmage is the owner of White Buffalo Farm in Paonia, located on the other side of Grand Mesa from Palisade. He’s been farming here for close to 30 years, and says that while conditions this spring were especially chaotic, growers in the North Fork Valley haven’t had a good fruit crop in ten years.
“When I moved to Paonia in 1974, there were ten packing sheds and probably 400 fruit farmers,” Talmage recalled. “Now there are two packing sheds, and 100 fruit farmers.”
Talmage worries that the region’s dwindling harvests have a lot to do with climate change, with melting of the northern polar ice caps pushing polar jet streams southward and making for record cold temperatures in the southwest. He reports that while he lost approximately 60% of his stone fruit crop this season, this summer’s harvest may actually look better than last summer’s yield. The 2010 growing season followed an especially bitter cold winter during which many of his fruit trees were damaged by what he calls “winter kill,” or temperatures so cold that even dormant trees suffer harm.
At points during the winter of 2010, Talmage reports, temperatures throughout the North Fork Valley dropped to 14 degrees below zero.
The winter of 2011 was also abnormally cold, and Larson, at nearby Delicious Orchards, believes winter damage was also partly to blame for the annihilation of the cherry crop this summer. The orchard’s peaches, nectarines, apples, and pears (which blossom later than apricots and cherries) appear to have come out unscathed, but Larson and other growers in the region report that harvests are running two to three weeks behind normal this summer – putting crops at risk of damage from early fall frosts.
“We just have to pray for an Indian Summer,” Palisade’s Rancho Durazno’s Eckhoff said.
Wine producers in the region have also been affected by extreme weather conditions in recent years. According to the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology, the trade organization of grape growers and winemakers of Colorado, this spring’s late freezes in Western Colorado resulted in some crop reduction, while a more humid and rainy summer has increased the chance for weather-related diseases to strike regional vineyards.
According to Horst Caspari, Colorado State University Professor and State Viticulturist, Mesa County’s weather has the greatest impact on the state’s wine industry. “The Grand Valley AVA in Mesa County generally supplies 85 to 95 percent of the grapes produced in Colorado. What happens here affects the entire state.”
“We won’t know until harvest, but this spring’s freezes could contribute to an approximate 30 percent of crop damage,” Caspari continued, noting that this summer’s harvest still looks more promising than last summer’s, in which wine producers’ harvests were down 60 percent due to cold damage suffered during December of 2009.
“With our crop running late this year, we’ll see how it goes. If September and October are warm, we’ll do well, but if it turns cool early, the grapes may struggle to ripen. Only time will tell,” Caspari said.
The challenges caused by multiple years of reduced yields has forced many farmers in the North Fork and Grand Valleys to evaluate their business models and evolve with the changing times.
White Buffalo Farm suffered losses reaching upwards of $150,000 in 2010, Talmage said, and he’s bracing himself for yet another season of triple-digit deficits.
As he explains, programs like the USDA’s low-interest emergency loans for producers in the recently announced natural disaster areas don’t offer significant enough help to farmers in his position, who have suffered crop losses for multiple seasons. “It’s just borrowing money to pay for borrowed money,” he says.
The Federal Crop Insurance program provides little practical assistance for farmers in Talmage’s position either. Last year, for example, White Buffalo Farm received just $15,000 in crop insurance payments – a drop in the bucket compared to the farm’s $150,000 in losses.
To help keep the business alive, White Buffalo Farm started a Community Supported Agriculture program a few years ago. The farm’s success with its CSA program is evidence of a growing trend across the nation, whereby communities are seeing more and more local food on their tables thanks to an increased interest in Farmer’s Markets and CSAs. This trend gives Talmage hope that his three-decades-old farm will survive another season.
Other regional farms have also progressed in positive directions, expanding their offerings into new arenas in response to the challenges triggered by the seemingly more unpredictable weather. Orchard Valley Farms in Paonia sells locally made wine, goat milk lotion, and artisan pastas to supplement its fresh fruit and vegetable stock. Nearby Delicious Orchards boasts an all Colorado-produced market as well, supplying local cheeses, honey, Big B juices and ciders, and arts and crafts in addition to its selection of farm-grown fruits and vegetables. There is also a café on-site, which has become popular amongst locals and passing farm stand-goers.
“The store is an example of a rising star in this industry,” said Delicious Orchards’ Larson. “It’s the direction small family farms are going.”
Peaches weren’t as heavily affected by the late frosts this year as other stone fruit crops; Palisade will be celebrating its 43rd Peach Festival August 18-21 in downtown Palisade. The 20th Annual Colorado Mountain Winefest is September 15-18, also in Palisade. Paonia then hosts its 11th Annual Mountain Harvest Festival, September 22-25. For more info, visit www.palisadepeachfestival.com, www.coloradowinefest.com and www.mountainharvestfestival.org.