Colorado State University extension agents in the Montezuma, La Plata and Dolores counties organized volunteers to pick apples for local food banks on Wednesday and Thursday at the Southwestern Colorado Research Center’s apple orchards.
The center sold about 5,000 pounds of apples to community members, but this year has been so good for apples in Southwest Colorado that there are thousands of pounds of excess apples in the orchard, said Greg Felsen, extension director and agent for Montezuma County.
“We just had a good crop year for apples, and we survived the late-season frost,” Felsen said.
Extension agents donated apples to Forager, an organization that connects local food to consumers and people in need across the country. Forager coordinated with the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver the apples to the Navajo Nation.
But small volunteer crews from the La Plata and Montezuma County Master Gardeners, as well as AmeriCorps’ Montezuma School to Farm project, picked thousands of pounds of apples for food banks in Dove Creek, Towaoc, Cortez and Durango.
“We’ll probably still have more,” Felsen said. “We wanted to spread the love in Southwest Colorado.”
Usually, picking apples for local food banks is a large community event, known as You Pick. But the apple harvest had to be planned months in advance, and Felsen said extension agents were unsure what the situation with COVID-19 would be in September.
Small volunteer crews are easier to space out across the orchard, Felsen said. But apple picking is even more important with the pandemic because there is a “rise in need for fresh, local food” for families economically impacted by the virus, he said.
The Good Samaritan Center in Cortez, Angel Baskets in Dove Creek, the Mobile Food Pantry in Towaoc, the Manna Soup Kitchen in Durango and the Community United Methodist Church in Pagosa Springs will receive apple donations from the research center’s 3-acre orchard.
“We want to get apples out of this orchard,” said Darrin Parmenter, county director of the CSU extension office in La Plata County. “People are in need.”
And if apples are left on the ground and in trees, it is likely that codling moths will eat their way into the orchard.
“We don’t want them in the ground or in the apples,” Parementer said, “because their population will grow every year.”
Peggy Smelt-Day volunteered to pick apples because the crop from her 70-tree orchard in Norwood was decimated by the early frost, and possibly by hungry magpies and a lack of pollination.
She also wanted to do something for the community.
“Gas and food are more expensive here,” she said. “Food deserts are in rural areas too.”
Smelt-Day said she hoped to get her local food bank in Norwood involved in the apple picking next year.
What is CSU researching?The CSU orchard has about 20 apple varieties, including Golden Delicious, Gala and Jonagold. While these are popular with consumers, extension agents have also incorporated trial trees with heritage varieties from the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project.
“Certain trees are going to die off because of the brutal conditions here,” Parmenter said. Having a diversity of heritage apples will prevent that from happening.
The MORP trees are still maturing. They were planted in 2017, but it takes about four years for trees to establish a root system.
CSU is researching how the trees respond in a commercial, high-density orchard, which requires less pruning and labor.
The research center uses drip irrigation on the apple trees, or about 1.5 acre-feet of water for the 3-acre orchard.
“We’re trying to find out what’s possible with an industrial tap,” said Gus Westerman, county director for the CSU office in Dolores County.
Extension agents help both commercial businesses and backyard growers with acquiring trees and provide advice on how to grow fruit effectively in the region.
The project started in 1991 to “see what does well at 7,000 feet,” Westerman said. The orchard research and demonstration project is now the only one at such a high elevation in the country.
Westerman said he was pleased to see heritage varieties get attention. A diversified orchard can survive a frost because some varieties blossom at different times of the season.
“Before, everyone wanted that perfect red apple,” he said. “Now, people know diversity is interesting and exciting.”
Montezuma County, once one of the top apple producers in the state, had trouble marketing its apples outside the region. Without a major freeway nearby, the area’s orchards were isolated, Westerman said, and when the railroad left, the isolation deepened.
Now, products like hard cider are “economically feasible to market outside of the area,” Westerman said. “That’s exciting.”