In Colorado’s peach country, the season that wasn’t

From market stands to restaurant menus, anyone looking around Denver at the end of summer can see proof of Colorado’s peach harvest. But some 200 miles west, in swaths of the state’s peach-growing capital, the tractor-trailers have all but stopped running and the farm workers have largely gone home.

“Usually I would see 15 or 20 trucks a day leaving the peach-packing facilities, and I haven’t seen one in several days,” Palisade farmer Scott High told The Denver Post last week. “We would sell in excess of a million pounds of peaches (normally), and we’re not selling any this year. So there’s a million pounds less just from our company alone.”

At High’s 188-acre High Country Orchards — and many other farms in Mesa County — the peach crop was decimated this year literally overnight, when a freeze early in the morning of April 14 caught the trees’ blossoms by surprise and sent farmers into a panic, the likes of which they hadn’t experienced in over 20 years.

“I’ve been farming since 1999,” High said, “and this is the first time we’ve lost a crop.”

During an already trying year, Colorado peach farmers watched this summer as crop yields swung wildly between zero and 100%. For consumers around the state, that meant less of a precious summer commodity — the Palisade peach — but more fruits filling in from the state’s other peach-growing parts. You can still find Palisade peaches, too, if you know where to look.

William Woody, Special to The Denver Post

A ripened peach sits ready for packaging at High Country Orchards near Palisade, Colorado, on July 16, 2009.

High’s fellow Palisade farmer Charlie Talbott says he remembers “pretty catastrophic crop loss” before this season, during four summers in the decade between 1989-99. After a two-decade run of successful harvests, he estimates the Palisade farms that did manage to survive this season came out with as little as 10% of their normal yield.

“It’s a very meek sum for us,” Talbott said of his own harvest, which suffered 85-90% loss. “It was just too cold for too long” that April night. Every year around the same time he prepares to watch the weather forecast like a hawk.

“I’d give up a twelfth of my life if I could skip April,” he said with a laugh.

But nature in this part of Colorado is usually on the peaches’ side. In the Grand Valley, an adiabatic wind known locally as the “million dollar breeze” compresses and warms as it comes off the mountain, usually working to protect even tender buds from an early spring frost. According to Talbott, what happened and what survived this year “didn’t follow any of the rules.”

Around 10 peach varieties made it through, just depending on their frost-hardiness and exact location in the valley, he explained.

Gwen Cameron’s 38-acre Rancho Durazno was one such successful farm. Located just five miles east of High Country Orchards, it’s situated alongside the Colorado River and at the mouth of De Beque Canyon.

On the morning of April 14, Cameron and her father Thomas took to their orchards with an X-Acto knife. They sliced sample buds open to check if they were green or brown, and they estimated about 50% loss, then they got to thinning, methodically.

The peach is a desert-thriving fruit that builds its flavor over hot summer days and seals it in during cooler nights. Farmers across the region thin their fertile peach trees for fewer but plumper fruits. They let them hang longer and pick them only once they’re juicy and tree-ripe.

But technology also plays its part — from her phone, Cameron can track varying air temperatures at points around the farm. If even one spot is off, she employs a propane heater or a wind machine to keep the peach trees on track.

As the season went on, Cameron said she and her dad kept trying to estimate their yield, “and we just tended to be wrong every time. We had more fruit than we thought even as we were picking it,” she said. “By the end, I think we’re pretty darn close to 100% of what we had last year.”

Her neighbors a mile down the road, Trent and Carolyn Cunningham, fared worse with about 45% of their usual crop, but still better than the farms across town. “One of our orchards had absolutely not one peach,” Carolyn wrote over email, “while our other places did fair.”

Juan Carlos Mendez Ruiz steps up ...

Nina Riggio, Special to the Denver Post

Juan Carlos Mendez Ruiz steps up on a harvesting ladder at High Country Orchards in Palisade on Aug. 29, 2019.

“The peaches that I have tasted this year are delicious,” lamented High with High Country Orchards. “There just aren’t that many.”

About an hour east and 1,000 feet up, Delta County experienced the same cold snap in mid-April, but the peach blossoms there were less advanced and more frost-hardy. As a result, this summer they had “far greater success” than Palisade, Talbott said.

At the Boulder County Farmers Markets, Paonia-based First Fruits is having a banner year, according to BCFM sourcing coordinator Matt Collier. Between First Fruits and Rancho Durazno, the market is still selling about a thousand pounds a week of peaches through its online ordering system.

These are the peaches you’ll find on Denver restaurant menus like The Plimoth’s, just north of City Park, where chef Pete Ryan showcases late summer varieties on a half-dozen menu items, at least.

“I don’t screw around when it comes to peaches,” Ryan said, as he was heading to the Wednesday farmer’s market to pick up a few more boxes of First Fruits’ Red Globes for his preserves and salads and grilled pork and pot du crème that week. He has sourced peaches from First Fruits exclusively for the last seven years.

“I just love them because they’re juicy and sweet and this time of year is, like, the best,” he said. “At least in my mind, we’re going to be celebrating peaches until the weekend after Labor Day.”

From Palisade to Paonia, the peaches that survived 2020 have a little life left. Then it will be on to pears and apples, which are already starting to pop — “Can you believe that?” Ryan asked.

And Talbott says he’s been able to appreciate the time off this summer, even though it’s felt a little “surreal.”

“You lose the efforts and the revenue potential for an entire year when you lose a crop,” he said. “And it is a sucker punch. But when you get over feeling sorry for yourself, (…) I think it helps one actually focus on the blessings and remember what truly matters most.”

Even with smoke from the Pine Gulch fire hanging in the air, Talbott says Palisade’s other prized fruit — the wine grape — is holding strong. And as for the peach orchards that have gotten “a break” in 2020, he said by 2021 they’ll be ready for an even bigger return.

“We’ll keep the wolf from the door,” he said of surviving the loss now, “and be ready to brush ourselves off and fight the good fight next year.”

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