The apple and peach orchards in Southwest Colorado are blooming late this year, but the delay helped avoid a frost, owners say.
A strong crop is expected, thanks to record levels of low-elevation snow this winter that recharged soil moisture in the valleys.
“A good amount of moisture sunk into the soil, and that kept the soil cooler and the trees dormant longer, so we had one of our latest blooms. It looks promising,” said Jude Schuenemeyer, co-director of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project.
The project has been working for 10 years to record and restore local apple orchards in an effort to bring back the fruit economy that flourished in the Montezuma Valley during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“We could generate a $1 million economy with all of the apple orchards here,” Schuenemeyer said.
Progress is being made
Two local commercial cideries and two pilot-pressing projects in the past three years generated income for orchard owners. The juice was sold locally and to Front Range cideries.
MORP estimates there are 200 apple orchards in Montezuma, Dolores and La Plata counties, with an estimated total of 10,000 trees over 70 years old. The many heritage varieties are in demand from cideries for their flavor and quality.
Last year, a large-scale mobile presser with a pasteurizer produced 3,000 gallons of boxed apple juice, named MORP Heritage Blend – a mix of Old Fashioned Delicious, Romes and Jonathans.
“The juice was available at local stores and sold out pretty quick,” Shuenemeyer said. “It is proof we can rebuild the orchard economy. Owners are so grateful go see cash for their fruit.”
The pressing operations have created a fresh market for apple orchard owners too. Instead of letting the apples drop and rot on the ground for the deer, they get paid 20 cents per pound, or 10 cents per pound if MORP does the picking. About 10 orchards were harvested last year for the juicing project.
More infrastructure is needed to fully jump start the orchard economy, including storage facilities.
Martha Teal, owner of Teal Cider near Dolores, is also optimistic this year, and the company is expanding its apple orchards.
“Our crop should be great this fall,” she said. “The trees are in full bloom.”
When she bought the property years ago, it was in foreclosure and the orchards had been abandoned with neglected trees. They were still producing small but tasty fruit, Teal said.
“With a little care over the years, pruning and watering, the fruit has become large and filled with juice,” she said. “We’ve since planted 100 new cider-specific trees and have sizable beautiful crops.”
They produce a blended cider with heirloom apples, and also a single variety cider.
The orchard market is subject to the whims of Mother Nature. In 2017, a late May frost knocked out the entire crop. Last year, trees suffered from a historically dry water year, but the older trees with the deep roots proved resilient.
Schuenemeyer, in partnership with his wife Addie, have been meticulously researching historic varieties, and utilizing grafting techniques to cultivate new trees. The young heritage trees are available for sale, with the goal of establishing the next generation of orchards.
The MORP Heritage Apple Tree Sale and Fundraiser will be held June 15 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. a the MORP nursery, 17312 County Road G.
Gates open at 9 a.m. for members only. Non-members may purchase trees starting at 11 a.m. Become a member of MORP for best selection. Trees are $50, and members get a discount. To become a member or for more information visit the MORP website.