Harvest isn’t looking very peachy for Grand Valley growers

ALIDA’S FRUITS OWNER BOB HELMER checks his peach trees in his orchard at 402 C 1/2 Road on East Orchard Mesa. Most buds were dead because of the recent freezes.

“Summertime and the livin’ is peachy” is most likely not a tune Grand Valley fruit growers will be humming, even with apologies to the Gershwins, this summer.

The Grand Valley’s peach crop struggled through some bitter blasts as March came to a close, and growers were worried a frost Wednesday night and this morning could deal a bitter punch to their beleaguered crops.

Temperatures were expected to tumble as low as 22 degrees, posing more risk to a fruit crop that already has seen apricots and cherries reeling from nature’s coldest of shoulders.

Even growers who dodged the frozen bullet today still have to see their buds through the rest of April, fruit growers noted.

After starting to grow peaches in 1990 and harvesting full crops in only three of his first 10 years, Bob Helmer of Alida’s Fruits in Palisade said the Grand Valley has had a long run of luck of late.

“We’ve had seven years of full crops,” Helmer said. “So we’re due.”

The last time Grand Valley peaches took a battering was in 1999, when Colorado produced 1,500 tons of peaches. The Grand Valley accounts for 80 percent of the state’s peaches, so the drop hit hardest in Mesa County. The next year, the state’s production jumped to 9,500 tons and has been on a steady rise ever since, to 14,000 tons in 2006 and 13,000 tons in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics have been collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The growth comes in the face of fewer planted acres, but with better management of the land by people whose livelihoods depend on their orchards, Helmer said.

As such, Helmer and others are putting the best face they can on the crop and their prospects.

“We take it one day at a time,” said Charlie Talbott of Talbott Fruit in Palisade. There is, after all, “still all of April to get through. We’re going to be very tentative and less aggressive in fruit thinning as we develop a level of
confidence” in the crop.

By the book, Talbott said, there should be no crop at all.

The “book” holds that a grower will see 10 percent bud kill with a 30-minute exposure to 26 degrees and 90 percent bud kill with 30 minutes of exposure to 21-degree temperatures.

But much of the crop seemed to survive 15-degree temperatures for four or more hours.

“Snow might have insulated the buds, or winds might have wicked away dangerous moisture, no one knows for sure. We were amazed,” Talbott said. “By the charts, we should not have any fruit.”

The actual high temperature Wednesday was beating the forecast, he said, “So hopefully we’ll beat the low.”

There’s a fair amount riding on the thermometer, Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said.

The county logged more than $10 million in fruit sales in 2007, a significant chunk of the $61 million in total agriculture cash sales that year, “and the great thing is it’s all new money to the county,” Acquafresca said.

Less than half the growers carry crop insurance. And many, especially small operators, self insure, said David Woll, owner of Knode Insurance.

Those who are insured won’t know how much they can claim for several months, once the season is complete, Woll said.

“You estimate the price going in, and you don’t know the loss until the end of sale time,” Woll said.

Fruit growers have a few ways to beat a freeze, such as storing frozen peaches for later use in peach products.

“I’m personally in good shape,” Helmer said.

Likewise, said Wendell Walcher of Pear Blossom Farms, who has pitted and sliced peaches frozen and awaiting use.

“We’ll have peach preserves, peach syrup, peach salsa,” Walcher said.

It’s too early to estimate how apples and pears fared, said Dr. Harold Larsen of the Colorado State University’s Orchard Mesa Research Station. Tests on grapes, though, showed no cold-related damage, Larsen said.

If the crop is a loss, large buyers such as supermarket chains will have to find other suppliers, Helmer said.

“If they’re happy with what they get, they might not come back to Palisade,” he said. “But there will be some who remember that the Palisade peach was easier to sell than the Georgia peach.”

Grand Valley residents shouldn’t fear going peach-free this summer, he said.

“There should be enough peaches for the local market.”


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