April frost cuts some orchardists’ supply to filling local demand only
Location is everything in the fruit growing business.
That’s the reality Palisade’s growers know all too well, especially after some capricious weather blew into the Grand Valley in early spring.
For the most part, temperatures in the valley’s easternmost end — protected by the Bookcliffs and in the shadow of Grand Mesa — are the toastiest, making the best neighborhoods for nurturing budding blooms on fruit trees and grapevines. Yet a stubborn cold snap in early April delivered an atypical top-to-valley-floor Arctic blast of cold air from the north.
The timing of April’s cold front was especially unfortunate because buds and blooms on peach trees on the east end had opened after some coaxing from balmy temperatures earlier in the year.
So growers on the east end, whose crops usually fare the best, this year sustained more crop damage as the weather pattern seemingly flip-flopped.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen it,” said James Sanders, of the Palisade Peach Shack, who with his wife, Laura, farm 40 acres of peach trees near Interstate 70. Sanders estimates he lost 90 percent of his crop this year.
To compensate for the losses, instead of selling his peaches to wholesalers as the family has done in years past, they’ll sell their fruit directly at farm stands.
Locals will have enough peaches to enjoy, but there probably won’t be enough for wholesale vendors and far-flung consumers, like “City Market and Kansas,” he said.
A lean harvest also affects the workforce because it eliminates the need for workers to thin fruit. Sanders said the family will cash in on their crop insurance to stay afloat.
“Seven days after that first freeze it was 24 degrees from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m.,” he said. “The flowers were more open. That’s what got us.”
Some of a tree’s tender peach buds can survive below-freezing temperatures for a limited amount of time, but hours of such temperatures, like with the stubborn cold mass that settled into Palisade in April, wiped out a big portion of harvests, growers said. Cherry and apricot buds were almost entirely killed, area growers report.
But farmers lost varying amounts of peaches, depending on where their farms are located and the cold-hardiness of their peach tree varieties. Furthermore, some areas within orchards sustained varying degrees of damage as temperatures can vary within a property, what growers call “microclimates.”
Orchards higher on East Orchard Mesa, and especially those farther west, fared better than their eastern counterparts, according to Theresa High of High Country Orchards, 3548 E 1/2 Road.
She estimated the most damage occurred to peach crops at farms roughly east of 35 Road.
High Country Orchards is above the Colorado River on East Orchard Mesa, just about smack-dab in the middle of the fruit and grape-growing region.
Still, High Country Orchards already has been receiving phone calls to supply peach orders outside of its regular clients. The owners won’t know how much damage has been done to their orchards until workers complete the thinning, but their orchard will have a hard time filling their own orders, High said.
“That freeze that we had was really bad, overall,” she said, referring to some double-digit negative temperatures in December and January.
“The peaches we do have are going to be good quality, bigger and sweeter,” she added.
Many of the surviving buds are on cold-hardy trees that produce varieties such as Crest- havens, Redhavens and New-havens, she said. Some of their early-producing peach trees including Rising Star, Paul Friday and 5B sustained the most damage, but that is to be expected because those varieties generally are riskier to grow here, she said.
Steven Sherer of Aloha Organic Fruit, 3525 G Road, said he is looking to have a full peach harvest this year, though last year was a different story.
“It’s really hit or miss,” he said. “You could say it’s my skill as farmer or that god answered my prayers. You pray a lot, period. I guess I just kind of got lucky this year. Some of my friends got hurt real bad.”
Sherer, who farms 15 acres of peach trees of 13 different varieties, said he fired up propane heaters and the wind machine in his orchard during the cold snap.
Nancy Janes, the owner and winemaker at Whitewater Hills Vineyards, 220 32 Road, estimates winter’s frigid temperatures claimed two-thirds of her grape harvest.
She and her husband, John Behers, work eight varieties of wine grapes on 24 acres. To salvage the most amount of grapes, the workers went light on pruning, which now is creating a jungle look and will definitely make more work for next year, Janes said.
“When you get cold like we did this winter and the wind’s blowing, there’s not much you can do to help,” she said.
Hit hardest were the merlot and muscat canellit grapes, but late-budding cabernet and riesling varieties were not as affected, Janes said.
While this winter and spring’s tricky weather was tough on farmers, late-season freezes are all but expected.
One local vineyard froze completely last year on Memorial Day, she said.
Not being able to harvest a full crop may mean the winery skips on making a vintage batch this year, she said.
But it also may have some unexpected surprises as winemakers get creative blending wines.
“We’re still going to have plenty of wonderful wines,” Janes said. “We make winemaking a multiyear process. Sometimes the fact that we have a hard year can make it more exciting in the winery.”