YELLOW JACKET By the time Tom Hooten opened the gate of the Southwestern Colorado Research Center orchard on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 24, about 300 apple pickers were already armed and ready with kitty litter pails, 5-gallon roof-coating buckets and recycled boxes that once held disposable diapers.
By the end of the day, 17,327 pounds of apples were harvested at the Colorado State University Extension Services popular Annual Apple U-Pick harvest event. Any container able to hold apples, from plastic grocery sacks to laundry baskets, was game.
Hooten, the interim extension director of Montezuma County, estimated that by noon the crowd had more than doubled for the fruit-picking party that unites family and friends in the 3-acre orchard, 18 miles north of Cortez near Yellow Jacket.
More than 35 varieties of apples were the main attraction, but fruit pickers also stripped a few pear, plum and peach trees and picked grape vines nearly clean during the six-hour harvest and sale.
Fruit sold for 60 cents a pound. Money raised helps cover operating expenses, Hooten said, including the purchase of portable compressors and equipment to spray and prune about 300 trees in the research and demonstration garden. The garden enables backyard fruit growers and small-farm fruit producers to see first-hand which dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties grow well at 7,000 feet.
A lot of the people here are families, including kids and relatives of all ages from the newborn to those in their elder years, Hooten said.
Families pulled wagons bearing loaded coolers so they could picnic afterward in the almost 100-acre research center. Many pickers have come for years, observing the annual tradition and inviting additional families to join theirs in the orchard.
Charlene and Max Johnson of Monticello, Utah, said they have picked at the event for at least a decade. This year, they invited Susanna Gaddy, of Mancos, who filled her boxes with Scarlett Gala Jonathons and Macintoshes.
Gaddy said shell be canning apple pie filling, freezing and drying most of the apples, but some would be eaten fresh.
The Galas keep so long, Gaddy said.
Charlene Johnson and Gaddy chatted in the check-out line about their plans to share their bounty with extended family from Arizona, where they appreciate the fresh apples from Colorados ideal growing climate of warm days and cool, crisp nights.
Strangers left as friends after helping each other haul boxes of fruit through the check-out line and to their vehicles. Many exchanged recipes.
Fred and Beverly Van Buren, of Cortez, explained to some fellow apple-lovers how they put up most of their fruit.
Just take Fruit Fresh and a quart of water. Dip the peeled, sliced apples. Then dip both sides of each slice in a cinnamon sugar mixture. Put them in the dehydrator until chewy, Valerie Van Buren instructed.
Nancy Marion, of Mancos, picked 165 pounds of fruit, cashing out at $99 for the haul.
I was in line at 8:44 a.m., she said. (When it comes to the apple harvest) Im just out of control.
Marion had a map of the orchard, specifically looking for Honeycrisp, Super John and Johnagold varieties. She said she especially likes the latter two varieties, both Jonathons that are interspersed at regular intervals within the rows.
I count the trees and look for the Jonathons, Marion said.
She bakes with the apples that are not eaten fresh.
Honeycrisp is often the first variety picked clean at the annual harvest, said Cheryl Young, administrative assistant at the Montezuma County Extension office.
People run for the Honeycrisps, she said.
While most pickers were in high spirits, comparing the harvest to the best Filenes Basement sale ever, and almost as good as nickel beer night at the Cleveland Stadium, an occasional crabby appleton took the apple picking task quite seriously, opting not to converse with fellow pickers in order to stay focused on the task at hand.
At the end of day, some apples were still on the trees, but none will go to waste, Young said. After all have had a chance to pick and purchase, a local soup kitchen gathers the remainder. Many weeks from now, folks will gather whats left on the ground for farm animals and for compost, Young said.
The orchard will be left clean, Young said.