An apple orchard revival is taking place in Southwest Colorado.
The Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project wants to return the region back to the glory days of the early 20th century when the apple and fruit-stand markets were a significant part of the local economy.
Back then, fair schedules showed 50 different varieties of apples, many unique to Colorado, said Jude Schuenemeyer, orchardist and founder of MORP, during a presentation Aug. 8 at the Cortez Cultural Center.
The hearty and versatile apple is especially ripe for a come back, he said. And while it will take patience and hard work, progress is being made as long-time locals and newcomers restore orchards, cultivate forgotten popular varieties and start up apple cideries.
“The million-dollar question is why don’t we eat more Colorado apples?” says Schuenemeyer. “This state had the reputation of the most quality fruit on Earth, and we can still do that here.”
Sara’s Polka Dot, Cedar Hill Black, Thunderbolt, Colorado Orange Apple, Northern Spy, Pewaukie and Ganos are just a few of heritage varieties that flourished in the hundreds of local orchards in Southwest Colorado, from Mancos to McElmo, Dove Creek to Nucla.
Jude, his wife Addie, and a couple of dozen dedicated apple revivalists are repaving the road built by pioneers like Jasper Hall “fruit wizard of Montezuma County” whose early orchards in McElmo, Lebanon, and Lakeview survive 100 years after his death.
“Our production capacity is still there to put out large quantities of fruit,” Schuenemeyer said. “For too long, fruit in our county hits the ground doing nothing and we want to get that economic value back.”
What happened?By the 1920s Americans forgot that variety is the spice of life, and demanded only shiny red apple strains like Red Delicious and Macintosh. Local agriculture extension offices persuaded orchard growers to “top work” their apples trees and graft on the more popular varieties. Look carefully at old apple trees, and you can still see a distinct graft line from this era.
Then the local fruit market fell to cattle and hay production, and has never fully recovered. Bringing back the fruit economy is seen as way to supplement the ups and downs of the predominant livestock and alfalfa markets, Schuenemeyer said.
It benefits tourism as well. During harvest, maps at the Cortez Welcome Center could direct travelers to where local fruit stands are in the county.
Fruit hunters MORP is busy hunting down those original apple varieties, and have brought many of them back to life through careful grafting and time-consuming propagation techniques.
Identifying apple strains is notoriously difficult. MORP is waiting the DNA results of 200 local apple samples sent to a lab in Fort Collins to determine their specific genetic variety. In addition to managing orchards, MORP is developing a data base of local fruit varieties, hosting grafting workshops, and creating a heritage orchard owners’ handbook.
“Our big goals is to bring back this genetic diversity to keep heritage apples from going extinct, and to get it so people can have these trees again,” Schuenemeyer said. “Trees that worked here for over 100 years are really well adapted to this place.”
Orange, vanilla, butterscotch flavorsA recent victory for MORP was the rediscovery of the rare Colorado orange apple in a Cañon City orchard in 2012. For the last several years, local orchardists have been grafting and cultivating this near extinct apple known for its fine flavor, hardiness, storage qualities, and cider making potential.
To bring back forgotten strains, MORP is surveying historic orchards and old fruit trees in the area. So far, about 3,000 pre-1940s fruit trees have been mapped of about an estimated 9,000 in the county.
“There is enormous opportunity to find old varieties,” Schuenemeyer said, “including apples with a vanilla and butterscotch flavors, and good tart cooking apples.”
But time is of the essence.
“Many of the old trees are in danger of dying in the next five to 10 years,” states MORP board president Sarah Syverson. “If that happens without them being recorded and grafted into new trees, unique apple varieties could be gone forever.”
MORP plans to graft and propagate 3,000 heirloom apple trees and have grafted 1,600 trees so far this year.
Many of these re-discovered apple varieties are being planted on local farms and at the the Gold Medal Orchard in McElmo canyon. Once the trees mature, the goal is to make them available to the public by making clones through the grafting process.
Throughout the county, orchards have become a new trend, with new ones being planted and historic orchards being recognized and restored to productive fruit levels. Two apple cideries have recently started up operations in the county as well.
“Where our market is emerging is with cideries and crushing for juice,” Schuenemeyer said. “There is a tremendous demand on the Front Range for high quality Colorado fruit. They forgot we existed, and we want to remind them of us. We can bring our orchard economy back.”
For more information go to www.montezumaorchard.org or visit their Facebook page.